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WATCH THAT FIRST LINE. IT’S A DOOZY!! (Or it better be!)

 

It was a dark and stormy night;

 

The first line of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 novel Paul Clifford is perhaps the most well-known first line ever written. Why? Because it is often considered the very worst first line ever written. In fact, it is considered such a bad first line even a dog could have written it.

To be fair, the entire first line is…

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

 

I mean it’s not awful. Not really. Okay, it does break that first line cardinal rule about not talking about the weather, but we’ll get to those rules. The fact is, over 150 years later, Bulwer-Lytton’s line is so infamous that in 1982, Scott Rice, a professor at San Jose State University founded the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. The challenge of said competition? To write the worst possible first line of a novel ever. It is considered something of a badge of honor to be named the winner or to receive a dishonorable mention in this prestigious event. If you wish to try your hand, check out the link below.

 

 https://www.bulwer-lytton.com/

 

The 2015 Winner by Joel Phillips

Seeing how the victim’s body, or what remained of it, was wedged between the grill of the Peterbilt 389 and the bumper of the 2008 Cadillac Escalade EXT, officer “Dirk” Dirksen wondered why reporters always used the phrase “sandwiched” to describe such a scene since there was nothing appetizing about it, but still, he thought, they might have a point because some of this would probably end up on the front of his shirt.

 

Why would I start this monthly First Lines feature on Wordsmith Wednesdays with so much information about bad first lines? Simple. A nationally known contest— the winners and dishonorable mentions are announced and discussed by such media giants as NPR, the BBC, the Washington Post, and a long list of other prominent arbiters of great literature and culture— the Bulwer-Lytton emphasizes the entire point of this feature.

 

FIRST LINES ARE IMPORTANT!!

 

How important? One of my favorite authors describes his process for writing his first lines thusly.

 

“When I’m starting a book, I compose in bed before I go to sleep. I will lie there in the dark and think. I’ll try to write a paragraph. An opening paragraph. And over a period of weeks and months and even years, I’ll word and reword it until I’m happy with what I’ve got. If I can get that first paragraph right, I’ll know I can do the book.”

Stephen King

 

Did you get that? Weeks. Months. Years. I have to admit, the first time I read that my initial response was:

 

Shoot. Me. Now.

 

But he’s right. He’s Stephen King, of course, he’s right. That first line is important. But he’d be the first to say there is no science to it. A writer simply knows. He or she knows because the first line isn’t just the reader’s way into the story. It is also the writer’s way in. How many of us have had a story beating around in our brain, begging to be told, and when we sit down to start, we freeze?

 

Standing in Shower       Stumbling Wet/Naked thru House       Sit to write

Brilliant story idea!               Must write down brilliant idea!                    Wat R Wurds

 

 

Stephen King gives a great definition of what the first line of your novel should do.

 

“An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”

 

Sounds simple, right? For some authors, absolutely. And the rest of us are truly happy for you. No, really. We are. Okay, we hate you, but we’ll get over it. For the rest of us I hope to use this feature to provide some tips, hints, exercises, and rules (which are made to be broken, of course) for crafting that all important first line.

 

Exercise One:

The following are some first lines from novels, mostly romance novels. You may recognize some of them, others you may not. In the comments, tell us if the first line would encourage you as a reader to read on. As a writer would it make you want to sit down and write? Why or why not? (Yes, I am channeling my days as a high school English literature teacher. Sue me!)

 

#1

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

 

#2

She was willing to die of course, but she had not planned to do it so soon, or in such a prolonged and uncomfortable fashion, or at the hands of her own countrymen.

 

#3

The dead guy at the end of the bar kept trying to buy me a drink.

 

#4

The moment the door opened I knew an ass-kicking was inevitable. Whether I’d be giving it or receiving it was still a bit of a mystery.

 

 

#5

Alongside a country lane in Cheshire, England, Miss Judith Shelton raised a delicate lace parasol designed to protect her skin from the dangers of the July sun and waited for the approaching carriage to run her down. 

 

 

#6

If I had known I’d have a hot architect balls deep inside of me before the end of the weekend, I’d have made time for a pedicure.  

 

#7

You’ve been here before.

 

 

Assignment One:

Between now and next month’s post, craft a great first line. You can use one you have already written or one for a novel you have just started. Next month we’re going to post these lines in the comments and critique them for each other.

32 responses to “WATCH THAT FIRST LINE. IT’S A DOOZY!! (Or it better be!)”

  1. Okay, this shows me that I need to step up my first line game! I’m so excited for this feature because reading those great lines just made it very clear to me that my openings are perfectly fine, but not Ooooooh. And I want Oooooooh. Thanks for taking this one, Louisa! I can’t wait to learn more!

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  2. I love a good first line, and I always feel like I’m not able to REALLY get into writing the story without a great set-up from that all important beginning. I want my first lines to say, “Here’s what’s going to happen, and here’s why you’ll want to know all about it,” but since I rarely know what IS going to happen when I sit down to write, it takes me a long time to get that line right!

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post! Cheers!

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    • I’m the same way, Elizabeth! I spend MOST of my writing time on that opening to a ridiculous degree. I feel like I can’t move on, which is silly. It’s not like we can’t go back and fix it, and still I work and rework my openings. I’m wondering at what point I should seek professional help.

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  3. The Bulwer-Lytton contest is one of my favorite things on planet earth. It takes a certain type of talent to pull off a horrible first line that is still well-written and hilarious.

    And great opening lines! Since one is mine, I shan’t comment on it, but they all make me want to read more. To see what happens next.

    I’d say # 4 makes me want to write. It immediately conjures all kinds of scenarios in my head. It’s just a great opening.

    Fantastic post, Louisa!!! I look forward to reading everyone’s first lines next month!

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    • Darynda, I love the Bulwer Lytton as well! I have to admire the talent it takes to mimic such a grandiose and florid style and some of the worst lines are actually the ones I want to read!

      Yes, #4 makes me want to write as well. Such a great opening line!

      I hope we will all be writing and reading some great opening lines in the months to come!

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    • Alice says:

      Darynda, Even though I’ve never read any of your books in English so far (and I insist on SO FAR), I think I know which one is yours! I always loved your first paragraph which usually starts with Charley stuck in some awkward situation with a ghost. The prologue is usually my ultimate favorite part of your books! I hope I could write openings as good as yours!!

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  4. Liz Talley says:

    One of my favorite first lines come from my friend Ashley Elston. “A ten point buck and a dead body make the same sound when hitting the forest floor.”

    Good one, right?

    I am not particularly brilliant when it comes to first lines. I have one that’s my favorite, but I usually begin not so …intriguing. Now I’m thinking I should work on that a bit.

    I looked back at my first line in the book I just turned in.

    Chapter One
    Somewhere back in 1985…

    “Code Hot Pink” was the only thing the person on the other end of the phone said before the line went dead.

    So that’s my first line. Is it decent? Intriguing? Guess I’ll find out next month 🙂 Great post!

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  5. #3 “The dead guy at the end of the bar kept trying to buy me a drink.“
    Excited me as a reader to read on.
    Because it’s antithetical, quick shirt punch—fast paced. Draws me into the intrigue. It reminds me of my favorite James Patterson opening line but it’s better, shorter than Patterson.

    Here is a paraphrase (from my memory) of Patterson’s:
    “According to my understandably somewhat foggy memory the first time I died it went something like this.”

    As a writer would it make you want to sit down and write? I wouldn’t steal either of them. Neither Exactly fit my voice. BUT yes, both make me want to improve my existing first lines with antithetical twists that are both humorous and intro the story while foreshadowing a hint of the ending.

    I collect first lines.
    My absolute favorite so far is:

    Simon R. Green “Guards of Haven”
    “When you are tired of life, come to Haven. And someone will kill you.”

    Somehow my favorites so far all seem to involve life and death antitheticals, but I’m open to ANY intriguing funny and surprising juxtapositioned concepts. I studied brain, behavior in my former career as a communication researcher. I studied humor. Seriously.

    One of my own chapter opening lines (used to be the novel opener but then I came up with a better one) is:
    “It was a secret. So of course, everybody knew.”

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  6. June says:

    Wow…just wow! These are some great first lines. They’re reach out to you and tug at you to read more. I want my first line to sink it’s teeth into a readers heart, mind, and soul. It should be so easy, right?

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  7. Becke Turner says:

    Love this idea and the discussion.

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  8. Awesome post and lines! 2, 3, and 4 make me want to read more. I need to know who the authors are, except for 3. I know 3. GRIN

    They also make me want to edit all my first lines. To do better.

    I can’t wait to see first lines next month.

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  9. Sorry to be so late to the party! For those who don’t know I have moved in with my 84 year old mother as she cannot live along any longer. And today I had “Driving Miss Daisy” duty as I call it. Some great first lines here and great discussion of the perils and positives of writing a good one!

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  10. Thanks, EE !! A good first line makes it SO much easier to get into the story. But, damn it is hard to write a great first line when most of the story is off there in the mist! The first line for my very first full length published novel, which was also my 2008 GH finalist – LOST IN LOVE – was a gift. As soon as I had that first line the rest just came to me. (At least the rest of the first chapter!) I hope we all learn to put aside our fears of that dreaded first line through this feature, myself included!

    Oh and that first line that was a gift?

    “You’re going to murder me, aren’t you?”

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  11. Those are great. But so much easier to read than write them!

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  12. Two great first lines, Liz !! Both make me want to read more, which is the whole point!

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  13. For everyone who wanted to know, here are the lines I posted and their authors!

    #1
    It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

    Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

    #2
    She was willing to die of course, but she had not planned to do it so soon, or in such a prolonged and uncomfortable fashion, or at the hands of her own countrymen.

    The Spymaster’s Lady by Joanna Bourne

    #3
    The dead guy at the end of the bar kept trying to buy me a drink.

    Fifth Grave Past the Light by Darynda Jones

    #4
    The moment the door opened I knew an ass-kicking was inevitable. Whether I’d be giving it or receiving it was still a bit of a mystery.

    Stray by Rachel Vincent

    #5
    Alongside a country lane in Cheshire, England, Miss Judith Shelton raised a delicate lace parasol designed to protect her skin from the dangers of the July sun and waited for the approaching carriage to run her down.

    A Worthy Opponent by Louise Bergin

    #6
    If I had known I’d have a hot architect balls deep inside of me before the end of the weekend, I’d have made time for a pedicure.

    Underneath it All by Kate Canterbary

    #7
    You’ve been here before.

    Needful Things by Stephen King

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  14. Diana Layne says:

    Some fabulous and thought-provoking examples!

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  15. Una,

    I love those first lines! Collecting them is a great idea as it gives a terrific point of reference to study!

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