Sunday, August 3, 2014

First Lines

"Hello, my name is Mary Horner, and today I am going to address how to begin your article." That sentence is the equivalent of an author beginning his or her novel with “Hello, my name is Nora Novelist, and today I am going to tell you the story of my main character, Gretchen, heir to a peanut fortune, and her struggle to overcome an addiction to peanut butter while falling in love with a six-toed man with a nut allergy."

Those sentences aren't terrible, but not effective because they do nothing to move along the story or article. They don’t help the reader get involved in the story and want to stay there. 

Jane Henderson, book review editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, spoke recently to Saturday Writers and advised writers not to back into a story. What she meant by that is don't start somewhere else before getting to the story. She believes that if you are telling a story about someone traveling down a river, don’t start with the history of the entire region before getting to the river. Start with the story of traveling down the river, and then, if it’s pertinent, bring in the history of the region as it unfolds naturally. 

She said that in some cases, she can chop off the first paragraph of a book review because it doesn’t say anything about the book. It’s like my old habit of “But first, … “ when I want to tell you some background before I get to the story. But I don’t have to do that. When I start telling the story at a logical place, the audience will get it.

I love Stephen King’s thoughts on this topic, who said, in The Atlantic, “A book won't stand or fall on the very first line of prose -- the story has got to be there, and that's the real work. And yet a really good first line can do so much to establish that crucial sense of voice -- it's the first thing that acquaints you, that makes you eager, that starts to enlist you for the long haul. So there's incredible power in it, when you say, come in here. You want to know about this. And someone begins to listen.”

So don’t throw away that first line’s potential with something that doesn’t work. Take some time to develop the story and the characters, and perhaps something great will pop that makes you realize you couldn’t start anywhere else.

Write soon,

Here’s the article with King’s quote:


  1. Mary--Great post. With my students--when they're writing memoirs or short stories--I let them know they can start in the middle of the story or even at the end, and then flash back to the beginning.

    You are spot on about advising us to "take some time to develop the story and characters, and perhaps something great will pop." I had what I thought was a great beginning for my WIP, but although it was sharp and snarky (or so I hope) it didn't begin the piece on the right foot. After digging deeper with the characters, I'm much happier with the opening now.

    And thanks for the King quote. Just about anything he says about writing--I'm eager to hear.

    1. My students have trouble beginning their speeches sometimes, and I can definitely relate. And yes, Stephen King can get right to the heart of the matter when it comes to discussing the written word! This was a quote I had not heard before, and I really like it, too!

  2. Very interesting post today. I do know the importance of first lines but you have jogged me to rethink it...want to ponder it more...thanks for igniting me!

  3. Thanks! I love getting inspiration and ideas from other writers, and am glad that I had that effect on someone else today!

  4. I really enjoyed hearing Jane. She certainly did make me think. And it was fun having lunch with her, too. Great post, Mary!

    Critter Alley

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  6. I always thought the hook sentence was the most important part of a WIP, but it is true, the story can't start on page 50. So now, I try harder to get to the point. Thanks for the reminder.