'Killer First Lines' An Article by Kayleigh Cutforth
One thing is certain, it doesn’t matter how compelling your story is, unless you can grip the reader in the first few lines, the rest of the story is immaterial. The fundamental key to a great opening? A killer first line. Easier said than done, right? Thankfully, the editing process gives ample time and space to craft and shape these crucial sentences, but where do you even start?
Imagine just for a moment, the writer as fisherman (or woman…), fishing a particular river for a particular fish. They must first decide where to set up their equipment, pick the best location and select the choicest bait with which to catch the fish. They know in advance what bait the fish prefer. They have researched and spoken to other fishermen experienced in this particular spot. They know when they lower the juicy bait, they have covered every possible approach, and the chances of catching a fish are high to very high, almost certain.
Now imagine the bait as the first line of a submission, the select bait with which to catch an editor’s attention. There is only one brief chance to impress when you reach the top of the (often very large) pile, and it rests (almost always) on those crucial first lines. I like to think of it as the three ‘Vs’:
A killer first line introduces the narrator’s VOICE, it is the precursor of everything to come. If the voice is dull, boring, monotonous, or repetitive, the reader is unlikely to get past the first couple of sentences. Take a look at this first line from ‘Trainspotting’ by Irvine Welsh (1993):
‘The sweat was lashing oafay Sick Boy; he wis trembling.’
Immediately, we are drawn into the story. Where are they? What is this dialect? What is going on? We must read on. Tick. Killer first line.
An opening line gives us the VIBE of the rest of the story. A lighthearted, funny piece might start with a whimsical, sarcastic or satirical first line. In contrast, a horror story needs to unsettle the reader, engaging the uncanny, or employ shock tactics. The first line must absolutely set the mood of the narrative. ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ (1959) by Shirley Jackson begins:
‘No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.’
Here, Jackson introduces the concept of insanity, madness, and hints at eternal restlessness, all in the first sentence. The mind starts to wander. Can we trust this narrator? Are they insane? Is this a dream? We need the questions answered and must read on. Tick.
Lastly, killer first lines are VIVID, they linger long after we have dived headfirst into the story. They produce strong, clear, and intense images in the mind. In ‘Metamorphosis’ (1915), Franz Kafka writes:
‘As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.’
Here, the bold and memorable imagery creates vivid mental images for the reader. Tick.
Often, it’s easier to go back to the opening line when the story is complete. You know the vibe, characters, and plot inside out and can then sum it all up in one killer opening sentence. Sometimes the opening line is all you have, and the rest of the narrative flows easily from it. Try sending your opening to friends, especially non-writers and ask for opinions. Is this something they would want to read? Being vulnerable is a sure-fire way to get honest opinions and ensure your writing is the best it can possibly be. However, you prefer to write, get your work in front of as many pairs of eyes as possible before sending it off, be open to suggestion and most of all enjoy the process as much as the outcome.