Saturday, December 5, 2015

How Important Is The First Line?

“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to realize the gravity of our situation.” (Secret History, 1)

That is the first line of one of my favorite novels of all time. The Secret History is also one of the most successful novels ever, and it launched the career of Donna Tartt, who went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for her most recent book, The Goldfinch. I love that first line because it immediately drew me in. I’m wondering who Bunny is, and why did he die? I know the story takes place during winter, in the mountains, and I’m curious who this “we” is that the narrator speaks of, and what, exactly, is their situation?

I’ve heard that the first line is the most important line of your novel, and if it’s not absolutely fabulous, with a huge, explosive impact, agents and publishers will stop reading immediately. I find this sort of hard to believe, because I’ve read lots of novels with lackluster first lines, yet they turned out to be good books, nonetheless.

Still, as a writer I feel that first-line pressure. The first line of The Standout is “I wanted to jump, but I didn’t have the guts.” I guess this line was interesting enough to keep people reading, because my book got a nice amount of nominations on Kindle Scout, and it won a publishing contract. But I doubt it will go down in history of best first lines ever.

It’s a difficult balance. This week a story I wrote was being workshopped in the grad-school class I’m taking. Actually, it’s the first chapter of a novel, about a woman whose sister dies. I reveal that this sister dies right away. The revelation isn’t in the first line, but in the first paragraph, and that’s been the major criticism so far. They say it ruins the suspense. Since the sister dying is merely the inciting incident that leads to a much bigger, more suspenseful storyline, I figured it was okay. I mean, you have to draw your readers in immediately, right? But maybe I’m doing it wrong.

For the same class, we had an assignment to come up with five “first lines” of novels or stories. Here are mine:
  • Even before I opened that manila envelope, I knew my instructions would be to kill Tania, my one true love.
  • Abby can’t say what compelled her up those rickety old steps, through the crooked, unstable door and into that abandoned house, only to find a box of Stephen’s childhood photos.
  • First I smell the evergreens, then I open my eyes and see pine needles looming above me; is it sap that covers my naked body with mucous, or is it something more sinister?
  •   I never believed I could kill so carelessly, but things happen, and now I’ll never be free again.
  • Joanne used to laugh when Ryan said he knew voodoo, but that was before she dumped him, before she woke up the next day with appendicitis, before she inexplicably went blind in her left eye.

My instructor liked the last one best. If anyone would like to comment, I’d love to know your opinion. How important is the first line of a novel? Should it reveal the action, or does that ruin the suspense?

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