The first line isn’t as important as people make it out to be.
You don’t need to find some way to convey the whole entire story in six words or less. You don’t need to write something so intriguing the reader will sell you their very soul to read more. You don’t need to cry tears of blood, staring at a blank page for over a week.
That’s all for the first chapter as a whole.
What’s actually import is creating a message or promise to the reader that you will then spend the rest of the book very slowly delivering. In fact, that delivery is what will make your ending feel meaningful and satisfying to the reader. That final conclusion to that promised massage.
Creating that promise can be done in one of these five ways.
1. Introduce your main character.
Let’s be honest here, it’s your characters that will make or break your book. So why not start out with one of them.
Now, everywhere you look you will find someone telling you not to start with dialogue. But, I believe, if the dialogue is interesting and unique enough it could be perfect. Getting that perfection is very hard to come by through, so be mindful of that.
What you really want to establish is a very prominent aspect of your main character’s personality. Are they the laziest person in your entire book? Are they super rude to the point other characters want to punch them in the face? Or, perhaps they’re a giant child/class clown and never take anything seriously.
All of these are a promise to the reader that this aspect, or a part of it, is going to change by the end of the book. Or, that it’s something that the character will have to come to accept about themselves.
Such as a character accepting their sexuality or a religious/fanatic character loosing their faith/obsession and having to learn to live with it.
2. Establish the genre of the book.
Most genres will be clear from the cover and the description, but it’s always good to throw your reader into the thick of things from the get-go.
If it’s a sci-fi let’s see robots and/or aliens, planets and starships. A fantasy should showcase magic, magical stuff, and/or mystical creatures/things. A romance might actually start with a break up. The discovery of cheating, the realization of feelings, or a cute first meeting between the two main characters. Were as a crime novel more than likely will start with a murder or the discovery of a murder.
Genres are great because they give the reader clear expectation for how the story will end… or at least what direction it’ll go in. After all, there’s no real universal expectation for the ending of a sci-fi or fantasy, only that things are going to get real crazy real fast. But with other such genres you need to make sure you’re sticking to the code.
Romances need a happy ending. Crimes should be solved. Horror should give you nightmares, wake up crying for mommy, and thank god it doesn’t actually exist. Or you can subvert the genre. But you should probably foreshadow this in your promise to the reader to begin with.
3. Introduce your villain.
This is pretty much the same as section one. When introducing the villain you want to introduce them the same way you would introduce the main character. At least in the first line.
Maybe start with an aspect of the villain that they are well known for.
Are they a powerful warlord with a heart of ice? A cruel mad scientist set on destroying the world? Or maybe you want to keep their villainy a secret, and they’re the heroes’ best friend. Their parent. Their sibling. Their lover! It’s all fun and games until you break a few hearts.
This introduction route is a promise of what the good guys will have to overcome. Or a mirror aspect of the main character that they will have to learn to accept or else end up just like the villain.
For instance, someone who has hatred for a certain group of people that they are secretly a part of. And a main character who also experiences that same situation, but instead of suppressing it and covering it up with lies grows to be proud of who they are.
4. Establish the mood of the story.
This tends to be the same or similar to genre and it’s where authors tend to use weather and setting.
Nighttime in the middle of the woods might convey horror and a struggle to survive. A sudden downpour in the middle of the busy city might elude to drama and hard times for the character/s. Or, bright sunshine on the beach could lead to a fun family vacation and romance.
However, whether/setting is rather boring, so make sure you don’t go on and on about it. Also, I feel like this is one of the harder ways to start a story because it’s easy for readers to interpret it differently than you intended them to.
And though sometimes that can end up being a good thing most of the time it’ll just leave the reader confused. Unless you’re writing something with a very defined mood like horror or tragedy.
Because as a writer, it’s easy to slip out of the mood you started with and unintentionally be conveying a completely different mood half way through the book.
So unless you’re crafting a roller-coaster ride of emotion or a slow flip from one to another, make sure you keep a firm handle on the story's mood.
5. Make an overall statement pertaining to the theme of the story.
Such as in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” That love conquers all. That blood is thicker than water. That life as we know it isn’t always black and white.
These statements are very clear promises about a universal truth that you need to spend the rest of the book showcasing.
Or, the exact opposite. If the statement is false or a lie society has come to believe, showcase that lie and how society or the character/s have been fooled. For example, any statement that might convey sexist or racist beliefs.
But again, only one of these things.
It is only one line after all. Just throw something out there to get started. You can always change it later. Cause who knows you might hit a gem on the first try. (Probably not, but we can all dream.)
Just remember, it’s not as important as it might seem. You don’t have to worship the line gods with your eyeballs for hours.
And if you’re dead set on something every single person in the universe tells you not to do… Do it anyway! Like I said, the real important part of the beginning is the first chapter. That’s where you need to listen more to what people say you need or don’t need.
Do note that these promises to the reader are very important and if you end your story without it being concluded in some way you will betray the reader’s trust.
What's your favorite first line? One you wrote? One you think should have never been written?