The first line of your story is important not only for your readers. The first line of your story is especially important also for you, the writer — especially if you are a pantster. I’m saying this because first phrases, can have a unique way to set the tone and the direction of your stories.
After all, if I wrote: “The biplane was doomed.” — which of the following phrases would you find more pertinent?
1) The roaring engine was on fire.
2) The ice cream was slowly melting in its cup, like forgotten baggage.
Of course, number one is the easiest choice here. However, this doesn’t rule out the second option. In fact, you can find notably creative ways to link also to phrase number two.
I’m thinking of stream of consciousness here. I mean, maybe the biplane’s pilot has been shot, and he’s dying. So he’s replying in his mind the scene of when he had proposed to his sweetheart and had been turned down.
Or maybe he’s reliving that fateful day when, at the end of their usual Sunday lunches, he had announced to his parents he was going to enlist as a pilot. Maybe he’s reliving the argument that had ensued.
As you can see, in any case, the first phrase exerts his controlling power on what can reasonably come next.
The two parts of creative writing
Of course, this seems all extremely banal. After all, isn’t this just like normal writing, when you have to link ideas in a logical and neat progression?
From a purely mechanical perspective, it is. But if writing really were such a mechanical activity, then it should come easy to every writer, and at all times.
Instead while writing about something we already know is mostly a matter of technique, when we have to couple technique with idea generation, things get a lot more difficult.
This is why many writers become plotters. In this way they keep the creative and the technical aspects of writing apart. They can focus first on ideas, and then, once such ideas have been effectively structured into a compelling story, they can focus on the merely technical aspects of writing.
This is a solution. A solution that works for many writers. However, while a certain measure of plotting can be invaluable, for me and many other pantsters, writing a book that has been plotted from the first scene to the last one is like being kicked in the teeth.
It’s not about quality I’m speaking here — for I believe masterpieces can be written by both pantsters and plotters. It’s about personal preferences. In fact, forcing a pantster into plotting is a surefire way to make them hate what they love doing, namely writing.
As a result, when I want to start a new story I still know nothing about, I often resort to a modified version of freewriting.
In fact, while in freewriting you write for a given time and put down on paper whatever crosses your mind, in this version I write down the first phrase that pops into my mind and strikes my imagination. Then from there I simply try to attach to it more and more fragments I find potentially interesting.
For example, last summer I discovered a nest of ants right outside the entrance door. At first, I tried to keep them from storming into the house with many different ruses, but failed. As a result, ever more ants kept coming, and in the end I had to take more vigorous measures to defend my house perimeter.
The short story I’m going to write now — the beginning, at least — incorporates it:
When he noticed the ant crawling up his hand, Len was reading the last page of The Sound and the Fury. He let the ant crawl across the back of his hand and onto the page, then he slapped closed the book.
As soon as he did so, he frowned. “No,” he said. He opened the book again and went to the last page. Crushed to death, the ant stood in the middle of the page. No more a living thing, but a mere stain, it had almost completely blotted out a word — with. But Len’s eyes suddenly narrowed when he read the word the crushed ant stood next to — agony.
He snorted. As usual, he was making connections and seeing things that weren’t really there. The only disturbing fact about the ant was that it had stained the page of his book. Just that.
He let out a long exhalation and resumed reading. But he had only managed one more line when the phone rang.
I chose the book Len is reading — The Sound and the Fury — just because I thought of the noise of the book being so suddenly closed.
Then I read the last page and came across the word agony. That, I found potentially interesting.
As a result, I decided Len is impulsive. Len is male. And, in his own tortuous way, he is creative too. After all, he sees things that aren’t there. However, I don’t know yet whether or not he takes some kind of pills.
The phone is one of those old desk telephones. Big and heavy. Will there be anyone at the other end of the line?
I’m also thinking of a salesman ringing at the door later — a man who’s made up of millions and millions of ants. Len can spot them. He’s almost certain they are ants, and that the salesman isn’t really human. But almost is not enough, even for the residual slivers of rationality he is still capable of.
Sometimes I write for a while and then I stop and decide I’m not going anywhere. This is fine. I just start with another story.
I keep all the stuff I write. At times, reading it a couple of years later, I’m able to find a promising continuation. Or a strong ending to write to.
First lines, the ones readers end up reading, are often written well after the first draft has been completed. In fact, what you need as a writer isn’t necessarily the same thing your readers need.
For example, “He could no longer stand his wife. But he was too coward to come out and tell her to get lost.” This is a beginning that may help you keep your writing thematically coherent.
However, later on you might rewrite the beginning in such a way as to make it intriguing besides than merely useful.
His wife stood in the middle of the room wearing that ridiculous dress she had just bought at Donners’ — happily smiling like the idiot she was.
“It’s lovely. It matches the color of your eyes, dear, ” he said, immediately hating himself for being such a coward.
Hope you find some useful ideas here. Happy writing.