For me, the toughest line to write is always the first. It's the kickoff of the story; it sets the tone and needs to be timed just right. Most book store browsers read at least the first line, so it's an important selling tool.
Because the first line is the one that makes the approach and creates the first impression, it can be viewed as the writer's version of the pickup line. The wording is important, but so is the tone. I think that's why many first lines sound so artificial or cheesy; writers get nervous and overthink the words while forgetting how they come across, i.e.:
Timid: So, you're a girl, huh?
Arrogant: Well, here I am; what were your other two wishes?
Here's a simple exercise I give students to help them out with first lines that also practices tone. I'm going to use it and some bad examples (all of which are based on actual first lines I've read but that I've paraphrased or reworded.)
Imagine for a moment that you're in a coffee shop. A cute person you'd like to tell a story to is there sitting alone, sipping a vanilla latte and looking bored. You walk up and say:
"Isn't this weather we're having just totally riveting?"
Talking about the weather is safe. It's polite. It's picturesque. You can't get into a lot of trouble opening with the weather because it is what it is and we all know what it is. No one will send you a hate-mail that starts off "I found your description of that thunderstorm completely revolting." It's no wonder weather remains the number one pick-up line most used by writers in fiction.
To me, weather is boring. It's been done to death. It has no tone. Wallpaper has more tone. And I swear, every time I read any description of the weather as the first line, I see it morph into "It was a dark and stormy night" on the page. It's up to you, but I really think we need to move on now.
"Times sure have been the best and worst lately, huh?"
Aside from the weather, nothing delivers a first line more often than General Lization. He's that big, vague, blustery old soldier that writers send to lead their story into battle. He doesn't know where he's going, he can't tell you anything of value and often he doesn't have a clue as to what the war's about. But he's harmless, and he sounds good, and everybody likes him, or so writers think (actually he's a bumbler, he sounds patronizing and readers think he's cliche.)
Whenever you feel the urge to deploy the general -- Times sure have been the best and worst lately -- ask yourself: Why? The answer is the guy who should really be commanding your first line. Then do yourself a favor; retire the general, and send him to Florida. He's earned it.
"I know this guy who knows this girl who's married to this dude who works for this other guy who dates this woman who has a cousin with a son who knows this lawyer whose client is looking for someone who can date his daughter's adopted son's best friend -- which would be me -- and I thought that might interest you."
Characters are good things. We like them. In my opinion, the more, the merrier. But to a reader, the introduction of more than one or two important characters in the first line of the story is like you bringing your entire family to the coffee shop to help you hit on her. That really the tone you want to set for your possible relationship?
Keep in mind that most people have limited memories for information, and throwing a lot of names at them is not going to impress them or help them remember who they are. Leave the clan at home and avoid turning your first line into a character dump.
"Hey, there, big boy, how would you like to hear something naughty?"
The coy first line is very flirty in tone. It flutters its eyelashes at the reader. It flashes a little cleavage. It giggles. Does it do anything else? Well, it better.
Here's the deal: the flirtation line, done properly, can be intriguing. I know of maybe a handful of writers who can make that tone work like a charm. But if it's an empty tease, sounds ridiculous or doesn't do anything for reader, it's a waste of time. Do not waste the reader's time.
Some other brief observations on frequently-used first line tones:
"You're smarter than you look, right?"
Questioning the reader's intelligence in the first line works about as well as it does in person. Don't go there.
"No one will ever, ever understand my pain."
Nor will they want to hear about it, either, if that's your first line.
"I know a lot of big, pretty, useless words that I think will impress the hell out of you, wanna hear 'em?"
About as much as we want to watch you love yourself. Pass.
"Can I tell you the story of my life?"
No. Okay? Just: no.
Also, one other problem with first lines that regularly bedevils writers is that they get stuck on them. They write and rewrite and reword and write over and yet they're never satisfied and get caught in that whole reread-rewrite-reread loop. If you can't think of a decent opening line, or can't get past the one you've written, do yourself a favor -- write this sentence as your first line:
Until I think of something better, this is how it started.
It's a prod, too. Until you think of something better, that sentence will be your working first line. Leave it there as a place holder and continue writing.
Some of the first lines I've written most recently, and why I used them:
“Know what the three greatest pleasures in life are, buddy?”
Beginning a story with a line of dialogue is a bit tricky, and a lot of writers don't like to be that forward with the reader. I thought this one was fun, though, and it poses a question that everyone would answer differently but would want to know how other people would answer. It's also a line you'd hear one guy say to another in a bar, which is where this story opens.
Only Death is immortal.
I debated this one for a long time. I wanted a powerful first line for this particular opening, which was an ancient journal entry written by a character who is prone to making provocative statements. At the same time, I worried I'd gone and recalled the general. In the end I decided to use it because it is short, it sets the tone I wanted, and I doubt I'll ever pack that much truth or irony into a mere four words again.
Luce wanted to live up to her name tonight.
I apologize in advance to every Luce out there for this one, but when this line popped in my head I couldn't resist it. It's extremely rare that I have a first line come to me on its own, evidently out of nowhere, but when it does and it's good, I run with it.
What do you wrestle with when you're composing your first lines? Do you have a favorite first line of your own? Let us know in comments.