First Line, First Page

Reading & Writing

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.

32 comments on “First Line, First Page”

  1. SteveB says:

    It’s not all about me.

  2. Brooke says:

    It’s not all about me, so why did you keep saying, “It’s all about you!” until I had to do what I did.

  3. snowy says:

    She hoped this time the dripping sound was just water.

  4. Peter Tromans says:

    There are certain facts, some very unpleasant, that need to be recorded.

  5. Corpsie says:

    You knew from the moment you held the twins, that you would move heaven and earth to make them smile.

  6. Roger says:

    “Nothing personal, of course.”

  7. Graham says:

    In the winter of my fourteenth year of marriage I was forced to confront the fact that Sheila was never coming home.

  8. Martin Tolley says:

    I don’t suppose anyone could describe us as a normal couple.

  9. snowy says:

    He had learnt through experience that when a human head fell past his third floor window without a body attached, someones day wasn’t going quite as they had expected.

  10. Graham Powell says:

    Martin Tolley I especially like yours. I could see that going places.

  11. kevin says:

    So there I was with another wife that I dearly hated.

  12. Fran Anderson says:

    Why all the hypocritical, canting, hysterical fuss?

  13. Susanna Carroll says:

    It wasn’t the dog food pie that killed Barry, although I’d have been happy if it had.

  14. Ken Mann says:

    Mr Fenn has the smile of a man who has accidentally taken a bite out of a porcelain cup and found he quite likes the taste.

  15. chazza says:

    George grunted and moved his chair.

  16. David Ronaldson says:

    Graham Patton pictured his defence Solicitor using the phrase “while the balance of his mind was disturbed” and chuckled to himself.

  17. Trace Turner says:

    It wasn’t as if I hadn’t warned him, I did, twice.

  18. SimonB says:

    Deborah knew she had taken the “blueberry muffin or chihuahua meme” too far this time.

  19. Jo W says:

    Should I wake him at the station or get off quietly and leave him to travel on to the terminus,alone? Decisions,decisions……………

  20. SteveB says:

    A lot of battle of the sexes stuff above ;-)) cant beat Medea!

  21. kevin says:

    From the look of this list, Chris, you’d better watch out!

  22. Peter Tromans says:

    Don’t look at the barrister. Absolutely avoid eye contact.

  23. Helen Martin says:

    Snow is mostly white and so are polar bears. It can be difficult to tell the difference.

    (The problem with most of the submissions is that you definitely can imagine reading on.)

  24. Peter Tromans says:

    Helen, I think we forgot the original objective.

  25. Ian Luck says:

    It was her toe nail clippings that did it.

  26. Ian Luck says:

    As he lay on the tarmac bleeding out, Jack’s last thought was: ‘Why is a window on the fifth floor of the Tax office open at 03:30 in the morning?’

  27. Ian Luck says:

    I apologise for my handwriting, but I’m starting from scratch with my left hand. The fingers of my right hand start to cramp, but that’s not possible. They’re not attached to my body any more.

  28. Helen Martin says:

    “It’s hard to remember that your goal was to drain the swamp when you’re up to your neck in alligators.” We weren’t under pressure so there was no excuse for us to forget our goal except that the sentences were such fun. Is the next stage to take a submission of our choice and see where it will go?

  29. Peter Tromans says:

    Was it an explanation or the first line of my autobiography?

  30. Mike says:

    My mother taught me how to tie a hangman’s knot one Christmas morning

  31. Helen Martin says:

    I reread the original post and discovered we’re alright – it was to be a reverse Bulwer-Lytton. Anyone up for taking on any of those sentences? I’d like to see where the hangman’s knot leads.

  32. Peter Tromans says:

    After years of work, he had finally perfected a cannibalism inducing drug. And here he was, setting out the drinks before the G7 summit.

Comments are closed.