First lines are important.
That one right there? That was – not so good. It didn’t slap you about the face with its audacity. It didn’t snap out like an alien proboscis and grab your hanging jaw, which was slack from wonder and awe.
Not so much.
I haven’t given consideration to first lines in a long time – not until I found an app that cataloged only first and last lines of stories. I found this idea both simple and obvious in its necessity. My husband didn’t – why would anybody bother cataloging that? Just grab a book. But no. These are all together. In a library. I can study them and their intricate architecture at my leisure.
First and last lines are imperative. Powerful. They can be written long before the rest of the story has even taken form. The story molds itself around those stubborn bookends, just because the writer is so determined to use those two sentences. They were formed in a half-dream what feels like a century ago, and God damn it, you’re going to use them. People will recognize your genius.
It doesn’t even matter if they don’t work for the story, sometimes. If that’s the case, then the story isn’t what it is supposed to be. I’ve always come up with my first and last lines independently. They form like soap bubbles, thoughts that burst if I examine them too closely. I glance at them out of the corner of my eye until they take shape and then hurriedly write them down before they are forgotten.
Then everything else is shaped around those lines.
It might not be the best system. You could liken it to trying on clothes that are meant for someone smaller or larger. (What if these pants are too big? Or too small? THEN YOU WILL NEED TO GAIN OR LOSE WEIGHT!)
For me, first and last lines are like the opening and closing to a concerto. (Yes, I realize that’s pretentious. Bear with me.) I heard those sounds before the story ever materialized. I don’t know what the rest of the characters are, where they happen to be, or what’s going on. But when I write a story, that first sound – and that last sound – are what I hear before anything else. Everything else is made to fit in afterward.
J.K. Rowling famously did this with Harry Potter. She wrote the last line years before she’d written the seventh book, and many argued that this pigeonholed her into an ending that simply didn’t work for the series. She ended up doubting her own work, saying that much of it was wish fulfillment on her part. But isn’t that all writing is? (This probably wasn’t the best example to prop up my argument.)
My point is that sometimes you need to jump around to get the story going. Sometimes you need to end sentences in prepositions. Sometimes conventional grammar rules need to be broken to tell the story right. Even though I’m a professional editor, I’ll admit that.
Sometimes you’ll only hear one sound or the other. And that’s okay. Just start writing. You’ll figure out what’s going on along the way.