13 February 2013

The First Line

Every story has a beginning. More specifically, every written story has a first line that sends the reader into the world of that story. Like me, you’ve probably read from dozens of books or blogs that state just how important it is to have a well-crafted first line. While this is certainly true, if you focus too much on making it perfect, especially in a first draft, you could be headed for disaster. Or even a broken heart.

I’m going to say something that I didn’t even realize I believed until I started writing this. The first line isn’t as important as people make it out to be. Think about some of your favorite books. Do you remember the first lines off the top of your head? Probably not. But at the same time, if you look back at those books and read the first lines, they’ll most likely resonate with you. So while it isn’t necessarily going to make or break your whole novel, it is important.

The first line is a fickle creature. You need the perfect balance of vagueness and intrigue. You don’t want to give away the whole novel in the first line, but you do want to give away enough to make the reader curious. It can be simple, but not dull. Sometimes a simpler sentence will be more intriguing than a complicated one. And it will be a jumping off point for the next few paragraphs or pages, where you will have more space to expand your ideas and themes.

Once you have that first line written, keep going with your story, but every so often go back and see if the first line is still a good fit. Even if you think it’s perfect, take another look. Because while writing the first line can be difficult, rewriting it can be even harder. If you leave it alone and move on, you become used to it, and thus attached to it. You won’t see any other way of starting your novel besides that one sentence. So when it comes time to really edit, you’ll be incapable of seeing its flaws. Because to you, it’s already perfect.

Let me explain more about the attachment. I’m in an interesting situation because of a contest I’m looking to enter for novels-in-progress. I’m just over halfway through my work-in-progress, but now I’m forced to go back and edit from the beginning in order to submit the first fifty pages. So it’s kind of like draft 1.5. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but I feel I have time to make it better from what I already have.

So of course, the first thing I looked at was the first line. When I adapted the first chapter from the short story I wrote, I didn’t change the first line. This could have been a huge mistake, except for the fact that I already wasn’t satisfied with it, just didn’t know how to improve it at the time. I’ve had this experience before, where I became so attached to the first line of a novel I rewrote twice, that when I looked back on it, it didn’t seem to make sense anymore. But at the same time, I felt that I couldn’t change it. How could I possibly change it when this had been the only way to open the story for the three years I had been working on it?

This time around I approached it differently. What I focused more on was what the words were saying, and not how they were saying it. The idea behind it was more important than the phrasing. Here is the original first line as I had written it:

            I started failing geometry right around the time that I stopped liking girls.

I knew that these two details were important to the first line. Creating a sort of parallel between them seemed important to start the story off, because by the end of the chapter, my narrator has a crush on his male math tutor, which is the jumping off point for the entire story. So the context was never a problem, but I was never satisfied with the wording. It seemed a bit clumsy and also didn’t provide a proper insight into his character. Here is how I rewrote it:

            I decided to fail geometry around the same time that I stopped going out with girls.

My first goal was the fix the choppy writing that existed in the first draft, which wasn’t all that difficult. But I tweaked a few things not only to make the voice clearer, but to get the reader to keep going. I wanted to make it clear that his failing is a choice from the very beginning, at the same time that he chooses to stop dating girls. Nothing is accidental for him. And hopefully, the reader will be intrigued enough to keep going, to discover why he has made these choices.

Am I done? Probably not. But like any rewriting, it’s a process. You write, then rewrite, then rewrite again. Then when you finally get published the editors may change it, too. I would advise you to constantly rewrite your first line, even if it’s just a word at a time. Or at least keep in mind that it needs to change. You may not have the right perspective until you finish the entire first draft. 

1 comment:

  1. Nice tweak on the first line (I am lucky enough to be privy to the first incantation of this novel.) I eludes to the character's premeditation, nice! On first lines, tres importante but you have to be willing to alter them as your drafts mature. God forbid you fall in love with your first love, then it comes time to introduce your darling to the guillotine.