When I say ‘writing an outstanding first line’, I don’t necessarily mean it needs to be some magical combination of words that hypnotizes anyone who sees it to keep reading. (If you figure out how to do that please let me know!). All it really needs to do is stand out. Make it interesting, exciting, terrifying, or even humorous. It could be something as simple as ‘My uncle’s head fell off last night’. As long as it makes the reader want to know more, they’ll probably keep reading.
The first line of your story, whether it be short fiction or a novel, can decide its fate, no matter how good the rest of it may be.
Most publications receive so many submissions that the process of elimination can be rather cutthroat. It’s the only way some publishers can keep up with the flood of emails they receive. Some don’t offer rejections at all. They state in their submission guidelines that if you don’t hear back within a specified amount of time, your story has been rejected. It’s disappointing to receive a rejection letter (or email to be specific; I still like to refer to them as ‘letters’) but even more disappointing to get nothing at all.
If your first line doesn’t make them want to read more, there’s a good chance it could end up in the rejection pile without ever being read.
If your first line grabs them, they’ll likely read the first few paragraphs. So those should entice the reader further, just as the first line did.
Let it reflect what emotion or theme your story intends to instill, so the reader is set to the right frame of mind to see the story as closely as you intend it to be seen. Allow it say something to the reader, imprint something that matters. Make them wonder, ask themselves a question; make them curious, afraid, or delighted. Illicit an emotion or a thought, an idea or eye-opening realization.
Here is a very basic example of how to turn an average first line into a good one:
Original: The night was still, as if being intently watched by the moon.
Better: Stillness blanketed the night, watched over by an intent moon.
Even better: Something permeated the night, forced it into stillness as the moon watched with uncertain intent.
The original isn’t terrible, but it doesn’t say anything to the reader about the story. It merely describes the setting. It doesn’t illicit feeling.
The better version adds some style to the wording, but still states the same thing.
The even better version adds words like: something, forced, and uncertain. These words make the reader wonder what that ‘something’ might be. It adds a touch of apprehension by including ‘forced’, and it adds curiosity by adding ‘uncertain’.
But this isn’t the only way to nail a great first line.
Another option is to begin your story with action. Something happening. It doesn’t have to be exciting or full of explosions (although, explosions are fun). The idea is to begin the story with action rather than description. The example I used above is more descriptive than action-based, but still includes action words: permeated, forced, watched.
If your character is in a situation early in your story, but you’ve started describing the situation rather than playing it out, just begin your story with the situation playing out. You can worry about informing the reader afterward. The curiosity of wanting to find out what’s happening is what will keep them reading. If your characters have something important to say, you could start with a conversation, just make that first line of dialogue intriguing.
This of course doesn’t work for everything. Sometimes starting a piece with description can work, if it works for the story. But any way you put it, the beginning of your story should grab the reader and draw them in.
Thanks for reading!
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If you have a chance, check out my debut novella, Zero Perspective.
My debut novella, Zero Perspective is now available!
Lost in the depths of space and time, swallowed by something unknown to humanity, a derelict ship is adrift in an alternate reality.
John and his crew board the vessel, the Esometa, on a rescue mission. The ship’s been lost for two weeks with no explanation. When they discover its occupants dead and decaying, a mind-bending journey begins.
The Esometa takes them down a path filled with horrid creatures and bizarre events from which there may be no return…
Lee Forman is a writer and editor from the Hudson Valley, NY. His fascination with the macabre began in childhood, watching old movies and reading everything he could get his hands on. He’s a third-generation horror fanatic, starting with his grandfather who was a fan of the classic Hollywood Monsters. His work has been published in numerous magazines, anthologies, websites, and podcasts. He’s an editor for Sirens Call Publications and writes, edits, and is an administrator for the horror fiction website PenoftheDamned.com. He’s also a regular contributor of non-fiction articles for Living Paranormal Magazine. Check out his debut novella, Zero Perspective on Amazon! When he’s not crafting horrifying creatures and tales of terror, he spends his time playing guitar and writing music. For more information and a list of publications go to www.leeformanauthor.com