Write the first line last

It’s hard to get started. Maybe you’re a plotter. You’ve spent the last six months researching your novel, drafting a detailed outline, writing comprehensive profiles for all your characters. Or maybe you’re a pantser, someone who writes a story by the seat of their pants. It doesn’t matter. That first line can be intimidating. You think twice before staining the crisp white page of your new moleskin notebook. You’re paralyzed by the white glare of your computer screen.

There’s a lot at stake in that first line. It is said that the first line of a novel sells that book; the last line sells your next book. The first line is a hook. Its main job is to make you want to read the second line, and hopefully, the rest of the book. But it must do so much more.

It sets the mood for the story. Sometimes, it introduces the protagonist, and you know what they say: you don’t get a second chance to form a first impression. I enjoy first lines that encapsulate the theme of the story.

Here are some memorable first lines, starting with a short one. “Call me Ishmael.” [Moby Dick – Herman Melville] It seems rather innocuous, but it immediately raises questions. Why does the narrator say call me Ishmael? Is Ishmael not his real name? Is he hiding his identity? What else is he hiding? And notice the immediate mood those three words plunge us in. What feelings does the phrase evoke?

Here’s another one, from Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. “On an exceptionally hot evening early in July a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as though in hesitation, towards K. bridge.” Immediately you sense that whoever this young man is, he is suffering emotional ambivalence. We fear that the evening being not just hot, but exceptionally hot, may make whatever passions are gripping him boil over. The reader is immediately poised for conflict.

See how different Jane Austen’s tone is in Pride and Prejudice. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” The words jump off the page, prim and proper. It is the language of an elite class, one made cohesive by universally acknowledged truths. There is a stiff sense of conformity, and of course, that’s what this sublime novel is all about: class and conformity to acceptable norms.

So how does a writer pull this off? How do we write that enchanting first sentence?

Here’s how I approach it. I write it last.

I will start the first scene of my first draft medio rerum–in the middle of things. I do this to get rolling so that the blank screen doesn’t get the best of me. Though I plot my novels and write a reasonably thorough outline, I often discover things about my characters that lead me to create unexpected twists well after I start the actual writing. Sometimes, to my shock, I discover that the story is not at all about what I thought it was.

For my latest novel, Moonlight Over Florence, I went back and wrote the first line after the third revision. It was only then that it came to me. Here’s what I finally came up with: “David Bigelow was like so many of us who believe our lives to be tragedies for the simple reason that we lack the imagination to envision the happy turn of events awaiting us around the next bend.

There are cases where the first line of a book materializes in the writer’s mind out of thin air. The author doesn’t know what their story is about at this point, but that first phrase catapults them into the story. If that happens to you, rejoice. 

Otherwise, consider saving the first line for last.

5 Comments

  1. I agree with you about this. Nothing paralyzes me more than someone telling me I have to write beginning to end in order. I much prefer the freedom of writing as inspiration comes rather than struggling to find the exact right words before going on to the next sentence. As long as the idea is down, I feel good about the rough draft. Perfect words are for the second draft.

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  2. I totally agree with this! Nothing paralyzed me more than someone telling me I need to go from beginning to end in order, because you’re right about inspiration striking at any time, and not when you want. As long as my general idea is down in the first draft, I’m happy. I worry about perfecting sentences in the second draft.

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  3. I am all about this idea. In fact, I would expand it to cover the entire first scene. Figuring out how to introduce your book in an engaging, exciting, and perfect way is so intimidating. I think jumping right in and going back once your story takes shape is so much easier and less intimidating.

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