Sunday, October 13, 2019

Fun with First Lines

illustration by Linzie Hunter
Some people collect stamps, Star Wars action figures or ceramic pigs. 

I collect first lines. 

I love to go into a bookshop or library and pick a book off the shelf and open it up to check the first line. 

Here is one of my favourites: 

In the beginning was the Word and the word was with God, and the word was God. 

You might think it is from John’s Gospel in the New Testament portion of the Bible, but it’s also the first line of Umberto Eco’s book The Name of the Rose, now being televised on the BBC. 

Here’s another of my best first lines. One of the oldest, too. 

Sing goddess, the wrath of Achilles... 

It’s the first line of Homer’s epic Greek poem The Iliad

I also love Virgil’s riff on it, the first line of his Aeneid, an epic poem in Latin. 

I sing of arms and the man... 

How about this one?

Call me Ishmael. 

That is one of the most fa
mous first lines in the world. It’s from Moby Dick by Herman Melville. But did you know that Kurt Vonnegut begins his book Cat’s Cradle with this first line? 

Call me Jonah.

Can you see the point I’m making? Good first lines can be begged, borrowed and adapted. 

Another of my fave first lines is from the Anthony Horowitz’s Stormbreaker

When the doorbell rings at three in the morning it’s never good news. 

That first line inspired the opening of my book Escape from Rome. 

The Emperor’s men came at midnight. 

But I don’t think Anthony Horowitz will sue me. All writers gain inspiration from one another and in fact it’s a kind of tribute when you use a famous first line as inspiration. 

I’m a writer-in-residence at the junior division of Kings College School Wimbledon this week. Hopefully we’ll have time to play a fun game I call Dr Frankenstein’s First Lines.

This is one of over a hundred tricks and tips I include in my new book How to Write a Great Story. The principle is pretty obvious. You take a fave first line (or two) chop them up and stitch them together, a bit like Dr Frankenstein does with his monster. 

I’ve used it in schools and it’s proved really fun and inspirational. Here are a few great first lines we have played with. 

Sophie had waited all her life to be kidnapped.

(from The School of Good and Evil by Soman Chainani)

When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle, everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen. 

(from The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett)

The Iron Man came to the top of the cliff. 

(from The Iron Man by Ted Hughes)

And finally, here is a first line I actually didn’t nick from anybody else but am proud of because I use it to tell you the hero, the genre and the setting. And I did all that in the first line! 

Flavia Gemina solved her first mystery on the Ides of June in the tenth year of the emperor Vespasian.

(from The Thieves of Ostia by Caroline Lawrence)

Feel free to play with it and have fun. 

Happy Writing! (And chopping…)