This week during our morning writing time, the sweet girl and I have been looking at first lines. She’s been fascinated to realize how many different ways there are for writers to begin stories, and how that first line shapes so much that comes after it. We’ve looked at a number of books she loves and talked about how the writer’s choice affects the story that comes after, and how it hooks us into wanting to read more. We’ve also talked about how the story would be shaped differently if a different first line had been written.
We explored several kinds of “first lines” today – traditional storytelling lines; short lines that tell us just enough to keep us going; setting lines that put us immediately in a definitely described place; voice lines that grab us, sometimes with an exclamation and sometimes with a question, but that definitely give us a real sense of a narrator or character’s voice (depending on whether or not the story is told in third or first person).
As an exercise in writing different kinds of first lines, we picked the story of Cinderella. Here are some we came up with – first lines that invite you into a retelling of Cinderella in all kinds of creative ways:
“Once upon a time, there was a girl named Cinderella.” (We agreed that this was about as traditional and simple as we could get.)
“Cinderella! Wash the dishes!” (The sweet girl loved coming up with this one. An exclamation that probably would come from stepmother or stepsisters.)
“A young girl slept with her head pillowed on the cold stones of a sooty hearth.” (A line that gives a definite sense of place, and that presents some important details that could come in useful quite soon.)
“Cinderella always had to work hard because her stepmother mistreated her.” (A line the sweet girl came up with, one that presents a lot of information packed in right upfront.)
“Oh, how tired I am of all these chores!” (Cinderella’s voice the first one we hear.)
“Why is it that my stepsisters get to lie in bed all morning, when I have to get up at the crack of dawn to work?” sighed Cinderella as she climbed wearily out of bed. (A question to get things rolling, and one that sets a contrast and drops us right into conflict. Cinderella’s voice, but also establishing third person perspective.)
“The old woman was annoyed with her lazy stepdaughter.” (Stepmother’s perspective, one that will be challenged by the reality that Cinderella is not lazy at all, but working as hard as she can for an unreasonable and overly demanding taskmaster.)
“There once was a prince who longed to find a princess to marry.” (What if we started the story not with Cinderella, but with the prince? A whole different way into the telling.)
Playing with first lines is a fun writing exercise, one that gets you thinking about the many creative ways that writers and readers can climb inside a story – whether a familiar one you’re retelling, or a new story.
It may be easiest to give it a try with a familiar tale. Choose a fairy-tale, folk tale, Bible story, or story passed down in your family – something you know really well – and then see if you can come up with at least seven unique ways to begin it. Sometimes you might want to spring a surprise to keep your reader going. Sometimes you might want to try a quiet, traditional line that almost lulls the reader (and then you can grab them quickly with the second line). Think about how you want to establish a character, a voice, a setting. Think long and hard about who is telling the story. It might be a narrator or your main character, but then again, maybe not.