Friday, 10 May 2013

Writing That Great First Line

Over at Womag Writer's Blog, I found a link to a great recording on the BBC website. It's by Tim Key and is called Suspended Sentence. Basically it is the dos and don'ts of how to write a great first sentence. I won't go into details today as you can hear the recording yourself and I want to wait and maybe do a longer post after I have been to the Woman's Weekly Workshop with Tracy on June 7 where one of the workshops will be on how to create a great first line.

If you don't manage to hear the broadcast, I would like to share with you some of the lovely quotes about first lines. Here are a few: 

A first sentence is a tiny taste of what might be in store; t is the pistol shot at the beginning of a sprint race.

Knowing you've written a good first sentence is the moment when the words come together in the right order in the right place.

If you get the first sentence right, you have 95% of your author's job finished.

Finally my favourite from Tim Key - A bad first line is like bad breath!

After listening to the broadcast, I had another look at the first sentence of the story I was writing and realised it did everything it was supposed NOT to do! It was too long, had too much description and contained no action or dialogue - needless to say, it is now changed.

I then had a look at the opening sentences of a small selection of my published stories to see whether a pattern emerged. This is what I found:

Only three days to go and this was the most excited Theresa had been since, well if she was quite honest with herself, she wasn’t sure when.
“You’re always so negative.” Cara said tossing the magazine at her friend.

“What can you see?” Ruby said, peering through the frosting of the door’s glass panel.

“What a tangled mess!”
The word appears slowly.
Val sat on the bar stool and watched her husband at the hob.


“I’m worried about Mum.”

June smoothed out the small, crumpled piece of paper onto the table in front of her with her index finger.
I found it interesting to look back at my stories like this. I had thought that I usually started with speech but in fact found that there was no real pattern to my first lines - it didn't really tell me anything!
I would love you to share any first lines that you've been particularly pleased with.


  1. Hi Wendy thanks for the link, which I'm really looking forward to listening to. I agree first lines are so so tricky but I do sometimes wonder if they get more credit than they deserve. When I am browsing books/stories, I usually read at the very minimum the first paragraph, more usually one or two pages, to see what the writing is like and to get the feel of the novel/story. I buy/read a book/story on a first line. Ever. And those first lines which are most famous ('It was the best of times...' etc ) I only remember because they are repeated so much. So, while first lines are important, yes, what follows is even more important. Anyway, that's my tuppence worth ;o)
    Okay, here's a first line from a short story I wrote a few months ago, while I think the line is okay (happy would be an exaggeration ) I still may change it - ha! Thanks for the post and the link and making me think!

    "You said you'd found the wheelbarrow in a skip but I knew that was a lie."

    1. I wonder if they are more important in a magazine short story to catch the eye of the editor? I shall ask at the workshop. I love your own first line, Marianne!

  2. Great post, Wendy, and I do like your first lines. One of my fav first lines from one of my prize-winning stories (2nd in WN) is
    'If only someone had listened, he might not be in this mess now.'

    1. A great first line, Rosemary... I want to read the rest!

  3. I'm going to have to check out that recording now you you've really got me interested. First lines can be scary too can't they as so much hangs on them? I love all the examples you give above, as they make me want to read on! Which is the objective...
    Here's an opening line from the only story I've sold to PF:
    “What is life without risk?” gushed Sadie tightening the harness.

  4. What an interesting post and it comes just as I am about to do my homework and will have to produce my own first line.

  5. Hope you manage to come up with a good one, Maggie.

  6. Thank so much for this link. Thought I'd cracked my latest story, but now I am going to have to listen to that recording!

  7. I wonder whether it will make you change your first line - like I did, Joanne.

  8. It's awful when you get so hung up on the first line that you can't get on with the rest of the story. But the worst thing is when you have (what you believe to be) a spectacular first line, but then the story doesn't develop as you intended, so you have to delete it! Last year I was working on a novel (now stalled!) about long-separated twins where the original first line was "The first stupid thing I’d said was, ‘How will I recognise you?’" - but then I realised I had to start in a different place entirely, so it had to go! :-(

    1. That must have been so annoying for you, Jenny.