Can you give me some examples of interesting first lines from contemporary fiction?
Published: June 21, 2012
Q: I’m always on the look out for interesting ideas for first lines. I’ve read plenty on how to do this well, but I’m interested in more examples, particularly from fiction that’s contemporary. Can you help?
A: I love cracking open story collections and journals and flipping through to see the very first lines of stories. The title, of course, is our first impression and our first moment of intrigue (or disinterest). Early lines are a continuation of that—another step into the possibilities of the story. Below are a few that have caught my attention recently.
“The History of Living Forever” by Jake Wolff:
“I can’t say precisely when the Emperor developed the cough.”
The dramatic questions that arise from this line are intriguing: What does the cough lead to for this Emperor? What are the implications of this Emperor’s illness? Who is the narrator and why is the cough—and its beginning—important to this person? I’m hooked.
“Procreate, Generate” by Anthony Doerr:
“Imogene is tiny, all-white. Spun-sugar hair, pale forehead, chalky arms. Imogene the Ice Queen. Imogene the Milk Princess.”
This enchanting opening showcases the character, one who struggles with infertility. This early description situates her in my mind’s eye in a particular way. She seems both fragile and powerful, with a touch of whimsy. This is a fitting and meaningful frame through which to view the unfolding action of this story.
“Grand Stand In” by Kevin Wilson:
“The key to this job is to always remember that you aren’t replacing anyone’s grandmother.”
The narrator’s job is to act as a stand-in for deceased, missing, or cast aside grandparents. This is unexpected and the first line delivers the information with clarity. Because I understand this unique aspect of this fictional world, I’m intrigued by it and want to read forward.
Each opening does a little something different, but they all offer a compelling invitation to continue reading.
• • •
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide
. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including
Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and
was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for
Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University,
University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a
visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University.