Write the first line last? by Sue Thomason

1984Openings are important. You have to put something on Page One that ensures the reader will stay with you onto Page Two and beyond, right? This is the Tweet Age. Boredom sets in quickly. So you need a killer first line: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Which, up until the last word, is the unremarkable opening of a mainstream mimetic novel. And that last word, “thirteen”, does three pieces of work. It tells us we’re not in Kansas (or indeed England) any more, it tells us that the setting is one step beyond the known and familiar (for the clocks striking twelve would not be a remarkable thing), and it tells us that All Will End Badly – unlucky thirteen, and all that. So as killer first lines go, this one is nuclear.

But there are alternatives. Such as: start quiet. “There was a wall. It did not look important.” Midway through the first paragraph, the wall degenerates into “an idea of boundary”. And the paragraph finishes “For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall.” So we know that this is a novel of ideas, and that the primary idea is separation, maybe implying the possibility of rejoining.

And here we get to one of the principal problems of The Opening: to write an effective opening, you have to know what it’s opening into. So perhaps it’s worth taking Colin Greenland’s advice: “Never promise what you’re not going to deliver. When you’ve found out what it is you’re actually delivering, go right back and start entering, from as early as possible, those tiny, sneaky little promises to deliver it.”

Red marsSo if your trilogy starts “Mars was empty before we came.” you know the trilogy starts with us coming to Mars, and will go on to show us the consequences of our act. And this unremarkable sentence is another triple-duty over-achiever, because it not only tells us what the story’s going to be about (Mars), it’s also part of a speech (or speech template) given by a major character, so it’s doing character-building for him and laying out one major philosophical strand of the book’s underpinnings, and also, by using the inclusive “we”, it’s building an instant community of Mars enthusiasts that we, the readers, are part of. We did that. We went to Mars. In our heads (so maybe there’s no need to go there irl?). This first line tells us that the story has already happened, so it’s almost a last line, too. The end of empty Mars, the end of the silence before the story.

And then there are the books that ease you in so gently that it’s hard to know where the beginning of the story is. How about a book whose first sentence states, in a dry, academic, “factual” prose style, “The people in this book might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California.”? This is followed by the title page, and then by a poem (on an unnumbered page I later deduce is Page One), then there’s another quasi-academic piece on the “Archaeology of the Future”, and then a story kind of narrative starts on page 7. And yes, the Northern Californians of this book will have given poems and stories and academic discourse equal weight, and will have seen them as the same kind of thing, parts of a whole.

Or what about a book that starts with a dictionary entry, then the contents page, then a Note to the Reader written in the didactic imperative (“know that the scene in which this book is set is not Earth”), and containing a 3-page, 7 000-year chronology which finishes at the point where the story starts. Which tells you, before you have met them, that the people who live here are nit-pickingly accurate, that they will define their terms, and that they are scholars speaking a language that’s good for talking about science and philosophy, but less good for sloppy stuff like emotions.

So what I need, as a reader, is not a killer first line. What I need, fairly soon but not necessarily immediately after starting to read, is something that engages me. I need a fascinating place to explore, or an interesting problem to solve, or to meet someone I want to spend more mental time with and get to know better, or to be drawn into a situation that I need to know the outcome of. I need a marshmallow now, not 2 marshmallows on page 77. And I need to trust you, that you know where you’re going, that you’ll take me somewhere interesting. So maybe write the first line last?

Openings quoted:

  1. George Orwell, 1984
  2. Ursula le Guin, THE DISPOSSESSED
  3. Kim Stanley Robinson, RED MARS
  4. Ursula le Guin, ALWAYS COMING HOME
  5. Neal Stephenson: ANATHEM


Sue ThomasonSue Thomason
I currently live in rural North Yorkshire, near the sea, with an ex-GP and up to 5 cats. Varied involvement with written SF has included a handful of published short stories, reviewing for both VECTOR and FOUNDATION, co-editing an anthology of locally-based SF/F stories, and being Chair of Milford.  I write fiction mostly for my own entertainment and to find out what happens (often this surprises me). My other interests include outdoor pursuits, gardening, classical/early/folk music, and collecting interesting or unusual paper clips.



About Jacey Bedford

Jacey Bedford maintains this blog. She is a writer of science fiction and fantasy (www.jaceybedford.co.uk), the secretary of Milford SF Writers (www.milfordSF.co.uk), a singer (www.artisan-harmony.com) and a music agent booking UK tours and concerts for folk performers (www.jacey-bedford.com). She's also a Home Office / Border Agency licensed sponsor processing UK work permits (Certificate of Sponsorship).
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One Response to Write the first line last? by Sue Thomason

  1. Terry says:

    Excellent, and so very you 🙂


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