First Lines Don't Matter


I learned something about writing last Friday. For the last several weeks (maybe a month) I've been trying to divise a new opening for Paper Girl. To say that this has been no easy task is an understatement. I've gone through several different versions and false positives. I researched the experience of other writers -- all far more experienced than myself -- in crafting the perfect first line:

  • The first line is your best advertisement next to the book's cover.
  • The first line sets the mood and tone of the book.
  • The first line should crystallize the plot but only so much as to make the reader interested.

How the hell, I thought, do I stuff all of that into one sentence? Most of the time the first line just comes to me, and I can build a story, chapter, or blog entry around it. The problem with Paper Girl is that it's far, far bigger and a more ambitious story than any I have attempted thus far. Crystallizing that down to one sentence seemed ludicrous. I tried meditation, interviewing the characters, even brute force, but the only thing I was successful at generating was frustration.

On someone's suggestion, I decided to take some time off from the project. I put it out of my mind, or as much out of my mind as is possible for someone with my personality. It helped somewhat that I was out-state on assignment last week. Being away from home tends to make me value my imagination more and I have less distractions available. After all, only so much fits in a carry-on. I put Paper Girl out of my mind primarily for the reason that I felt overworked and needed a break. After a week, my creativity gave suggestions of a return, but nothing solid.

It was on the first leg of my flight home Friday that inspiration struck. I was in a cramped DC-80 somewhere over Kentucky, making my way to O'Hare International. I was convinced that I wasn't going to make my connection since we were delayed taking off, and then there was a ground hold at Chicago. I sat in my seat and thumbed through my music collection on my BlackBerry.

A few songs in, the thought occurred to me that I hadn't been listening to my playlist of Paper Girl related music. I tend to assemble playlists for my writing projects to serve as both focusing and inspirational tools. Lately, however, this habit has fallen out of use in favor of less purposeful listening. On a whim, I decided to change that. The first song I naturally turned to was "Chop Suey" by System of a Down.

"Chop Suey" has been a strong member of the playlist for years. Since college, I've imagined it as the closing song to the fictitious Paper Girl anime. Always the same selection of images flickers in my mind to that song, a building in flames, a girl falling along a mirrored wall, and an assortment of others. Like many of the songs on my writing playlists, "Chop Suey" has a key lyric that is relevent to the story as a whole or a particular character. In this case, the majority of the song has both been parallel, and shaped the nature of the story.

Somewhere near the end of the song I found myself sitting bolt-upright. I'm sure that if anyone had seen my expression at that moment people might have thought I had just witnessed the fuselage being torn to pieces before my eyes. I didn't even voice if it were the right line or not, I simply knew at the gut level that what had come to me was it.

Lacking a pen and paper, I switched applications on my phone and began typing in what I had just written. It didn't take me long to realize that this wasn't the first line of the story. If I hadn't been so caught up in the moment I might have been disappointed at this point, instead I realized that this was the last line of the opening paragraph.

Drawing from some recently generated ideas, an image suggested from a friend, and two failed introductory paragraphs, I began formulating a new opener. It flowed surprisingly easily at 30,000 feet. A flight attendant passed by in the middle of this and asked, "You're not sending that, right?" She thought I was tapping out a text message or an email; I told her I wasn't and she was gone before I could explain further. Some minutes later, I stared at the completed introduction:

It's a lot like watching a television set. Everything you experience has an off-white sense of distance, and a high frequency buzz barely low enough to hear. Even touch feels rubbery like the buttons of a remote control. Except, there's no remote, no channels, no off switch. You're always watching yourself, a puppet made of flesh.

I hated it. I wanted to break my gaze, unplug the world and be free and floating. But then I met an angel who said she wanted to die.

What I had learned as a writer in that moment was that the first line, the very first line doesn't matter. The first line of the above section is actually quite banal, but it does hold your interest long enough for you to read the first paragraph. What is like watching a television set? you may ask. The line also does set the mood of the story as well as tell you something critical about how the main character perceives the world.

Instead of crystallizing the entire story in the first sentence, I decided to make a grabber. The first sentence keeps the reader interested long enough to finish the paragraph -- or the first few pages if they're particularly attentive. The paragraph alone, however, isn't enough for most readers to finish the book. You need more for that. Instead, the first paragraph serves to build up interest and set mood so as to prepare the reader for the really, really grabbing line in the second paragraph.

This line you can call a "nail", as in, "If I haven't nailed your interest by now, you might as well put the book back on the shelf." It's this line that serves to capture the readers interest, as well as act as a point of reference for the writer.

The majority of the analysis occurred over the next 40 minutes of my flight. I was so excited by this revelation that I wanted to randomly show it to anyone that would listen, asking "Would you read a book that starts with this?" I managed to restrain myself enough to compose an email, and set it for delayed send once I was back on the ground.

Since then I've shown the intro to several different people who's sense of writing I trust. The response has been overall positive and I see little reason to change that. Now the problem is crafting the remainder of the first chapter. I have some dialog already, but it's no where near long enough to make a chapter. Now that the imfamous first line is behind me, hopefully it'll be easier to pen the remaining.