Writing the first line

I’m sure whether you consider yourself a writer or not you have found yourself staring at a blank page or screen desperately grasping at that first line. Maybe you are writing for school, work or pleasure and for some reason you are stuck before you begin. Maybe you even know what you want the finished piece to be, you know exactly what you want to say but just can’t find the first line.

I have had numerous university lecturers tell me that the best piece of advice they can give is to ignore the first line. Write the main body, hell even write your conclusion, then come back to your introduction when you have a good idea of what you are about to say. Which was actually pretty good advice for writing an essay or a piece of writing with a clear argument. But what about when you don’t want to argue your case? What about when you want to simply tell a story and leave your reader to make the moral judgements?

According to the American Book Review the top two first lines in literature are:

1. Call me Ishmael. —Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)

2. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. —Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice(1813)

And without having read Moby-Dick I knew that. I can honestly although with a tinge of embarrassment say I have never read Moby-Dick, I do not know the plot of Moby-Dick. Yet I know the opening line. Is it that good? It seems pretty simple but somehow it packs a punch.

I am however far more acquainted with Jane Austen, she a renowned authoress and me a fan of literature, I felt it my duty to read her works. It’s a line that I find incredibly recognisable and it does crop up in modern culture. Is Austen that quotable? I should also confess at this precise moment that (perhaps biased by the fact I have read the novel) I much prefer this opening line. It’s a statement just as Melville’s but it’s more complex. Does Austen really feel this or is she mocking Georgian society? Can no man of means be happy without a wife?

But however you feel about these opening lines I think it’s fair to say that they signify the novel. “Call me Ishamel.” could not open any other story, just as you know Austen’s line is forever linked with Pride and Prejudice. Is that the secret to the first line? Must it be a line that will forever connect the listener or reader with that one book? Should it forever conjure up the rest of the story?

With this in mind I look back on my own opening line

“There is much humankind has learnt about space, but what remains undiscovered far outweighs the known.”

Will it be forever linked with my own novel in the minds of the readers? I am often unsure of my work but in this instance I am both proud and hopeful. It encapsulates the novel as I hope you will see as time passes.

Anyway these are just some thoughts I had and thought I’d try to set them out in some kind of logical manner to share them with you. Don’t hesitate to let me know what you think.

Oh and happy halloween to those of you celebrating. And the same good tidings for any of you celebrating Día de Muertos.

S.Hansen.

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