First Line, First Page
It’s the fear you hear from many writers. ‘I don’t know how to start’. But getting it right as you set out is important because the opening sets the tone for what follows. You can’t load a momentous or shocking opening into the first sentence very easily without it looking overly melodramatic. The first line of the very first story I got published (‘Left Hand Drive’) was this;
A messenger could have made the delivery just as easily.
It’s good because it carries sinister connotation; that if a messenger and not someone else had made the delivery, a regrettable situation could have been avoided. That’s probably the most you can hope for in an opening line, that it must not be complete by itself and therefore deny the reader a reason for reading on.
A more elaborate way of pulling this off is demonstrated here. I give you something light-hearted – a list. Everybody likes lists. It’s the first page of a story I wrote called ‘The Rulebook’.
Every house has a rulebook. It’s not an actual book, but it has rules you’re not supposed to break. In our house the rulebook appeared after my Dad went away. Here are some of the rules:
Put the lid down on the toilet seat when you’ve finished.
If you want to get something down from the top shelf don’t stack the furniture to reach it. Your cousin Freddie died like that.
Don’t touch the boiler in the kitchen, you’ll burn yourself.
Reading under the bedsheets with a torch will hurt your eyes.
The internet does not replace real friends.
Don’t say Bollocks even though your Grandad says it all the time.
Just because everyone else has got one doesn’t mean that you should have one too.
When you ask for seconds and can’t finish them, remember there are people starving in Africa.
Pressing 6 on the speed-dial will call Auntie Pauline in Australia, she has verbal diarrhoea and it will come out of your pocket money.
Every time you blaspheme, an angel gets a nosebleed.
Don’t touch the cat’s tray without washing your hands afterwards.
Don’t ever put a lightbulb in the microwave again.
When we went on holiday, there was another set of rules:
Don’t go in the sea until an hour after you’ve eaten.
Always keep an eye on the tide.
Only go into an amusement arcade if you’re prepared to lose money.
A stick of rock can pull your fillings out.
If you feel carsick tell Mum at once, don’t leave it too late and do it down the window.
There’s no need to drop a brick on a jellyfish. It can still feel pain even though it hasn’t got a face.
Soon I made up my own rulebook. These were rules I just seemed to know by instinct, or felt were probably true. Here are some of them:
If you don’t reach the bottom of the stairs before the toilet finishes flushing, the Thing That Lives In The Landing Cupboard will come after you.
You can ruin next door’s telly reception by throwing balls of silver foil at their satellite dish.
Every time you squash an insect, God makes a mark in his book against you.
If you die at home while your Mum is away there will be nobody to feed the cat, and it will eat your eyes.
There is a horror film that can make you go mad if you watch it.
Dad is still checking up on you, even though he isn’t here.
Then, in the winter of my twelfth birthday, I learned a new rule.
Don’t tell the neighbours that Mr Hill murdered his wife.
Now it’s your turn. In the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest entrants have to write a single opening sentence of such awfulness that it would be impossible to go on reading. So try writing an opening line with enough in it to make you read on. Think of this as the reverse Bulwer-Lytton contest.