Several days ago a reader asked me:
I have not written fiction in nearly 20 years and can't seem to get the first line written. Do you have any advice for getting me through the first line? Writing an outline is no problem, I just can't seem to find a proper introduction. Once I'm past this wall the story will flow as it almost always does (I've spent the last decade or so writing history). Also, I am considering writing this as a narration instead of first person.
It's a really good question. The first line of a novel is like the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth: everything else follows from it.
I think pretty hard about how my novels start. Here are the first lines (or paragraphs) of some of them:
The Empire of Time (my first published novel, 1978):
The intertemporal shuttle between Earth/2015 and Beulah/1804 was an old subway train.
Penny Constable woke up suddenly and looked at her wristwatch. The glowing orange light-emitting diodes told her it was 0503 hours, Thursday, February 7, 1985. With any luck it would be her last day in Shacktown.
Out of darkness came dawn.
"Three hundred and three metres," Don Kennard said into the microphone. "I'm about two metres above the bottom. Visibility is fair."
Brother Jonathan (1985)
Cramps made lumps of pain in his legs. His thighs and buttocks went numb, then ached back to life. Itches crawled across his skin. His ribs and wrists and ankles were raw and chafed under the straps that held him down.
The Fall of the Republic (1987)
When his working day began at midnight, he did not yet know that he would kill a man before dawn.
Rogue Emperor (1988)
Late in the afternoon of May 22, AD 100, Gerald Pierce sat four rows up from the arena in Rome's new Flavian Amphitheater, the stadium later to be known as the Colosseum. The emperor Domitian himself was presiding as editor over the day's show. Sixty men had been killed so far, not counting the lunchtime executions of fifteen noxii, condemned criminals unworthy of a gladiator's death.
Alexander Macintosh, captain and soon to be proprietor of the spacecraft Wuthering Heights, felt very ill at ease with himself and his world. The drive had just cut off, and the ship was moving at three hundred kilometers per second; in his present mood it felt like three times that, a headlong acceleration to disaster. Earth glowed bright and welcoming through the skylights in his office, yet he would rather have been out past Jupiter, staring at the cold bright stars.
Henderson's Tenants (in progress)
“No way to break the news gently, Mike.” Jeremy Stein came around his desk and sank into the armchair next to Mike Henderson’s. Awkwardly, he patted Mike’s shoulder. “You’ve got advanced pancreatic cancer.”
When you look at them together, you'll notice that they tend to make unusual statements, and they tend to show someone under stress.
To find out what the heck an intertemporal shuttle is, you'll have to read more. To find out why a spacecraft captain feels anxious about going to Earth, you'll have to read more.
That's just a routine hook; you can do the same thing with a college essay or a magazine article. The first line of a novel should also describe the moment when the rest of the novel becomes inevitable. When Don Kennard is at the bottom of the sea, he has nowhere to go but up. When Mike Henderson knows he's got terminal cancer, he faces the biggest battle of his life. As readers, we recognize this—at least subconsciously—and we read to see how these characters will confront their problems.
Their stress has to be appropriate. If you're going to write a novel about a middle-aged nun's sudden crisis of faith, you can't start with a barrage of gunfire. If your hero is going to kill a man before dawn, that death is going to shape the rest of your hero's life. If your hero is time-travelling to ancient Rome, what he sees (and how he responds to it) will decide the course of the story. (Gerald Pierce, by the way, is the hero of The Empire of Time, The Fall of the Republic, and Rogue Emperor. He gets stressed a lot.)
I have often committed the cliché of starting a story at the beginning of a day, with someone waking up or going to work. Yes, it's embarrassing, but every story follows a kind of daily or seasonal cycle: from dawn to noon to sunset. Gerry Pierce is a tool of oppression; his work day begins at midnight, the bottom of the cycle. Eyas begins at dawn on the first day of a new year, and before the end of that day my hero (still a baby) will have begun his life with the Fisher family—a slightly odd family living in British Columbia ten million years from now.
Whether or not you start at the beginning of a day, you start at the moment when the story becomes inevitable. Gerry Pierce in the Colosseum is about to see something that will change his life. Penny Constable isn't going to get out of Shacktown on February 7, 1985 (my 44th birthday, by the way) because the West Antarctic ice sheet is going to collapse in a few hours. Until Mike Henderson knows he's dying, he can do anything he wants to. Once he does know, his options are few.
If you really know where you're going, the first line can sum up the whole story. That's what "Out of darkness came dawn" does in Eyas: after ten million years of suffering, humanity is one lifetime away from liberation. The pain endured by Jonathan Trumbull (a spastic quadriplegic) is going to end—not at once, but soon, and by the end of the novel nothing will hold him down.
So your novel can start in the last moments of a peaceful world, just before everything goes to hell. Or it can start in the last moments of hell's rule, when the damned begin to fight for their salvation.
If, like many writers, you're writing your novel to find out what you're trying to say, it's a good idea to leave the opening lines until the story is done. Then, knowing where you've ended up, you know where to start. If the novel ends in blowing snow, you can start it on a sunny April afternoon. If it ends with a cheerful roll in the hay under an August sun, it can start with a rape in shivery February drizzle.
As for my reader's second question, about writing in "narration" (third person) rather than first person, that's the material for another long post...and I still have a lot of grading to do, so bear with me on that one.