What is Your Favorite First Line?

photo (9)-48_editedHave you ever wondered how to start a letter, an essay, a blog post? Or have you struggled with the opening of your novel, that perfect hook eluding you over and over?

When I was a secondary school English teacher periodically professional development days would come up and I  would be anxious for the break from routine even though I hated to lose the day with my classes. Every now and then, however, a day would come which made the break in routine absolutely worthwhile.

One such day began in the cafeteria of our small school with about thirty teachers sprawled at the tables waiting for the guest speaker of the morning. Our principal introduced someone–I can’t remember whether male or female even–and the day began. What I do remember is these two words:

ANTICIPATORY SET

The speaker showed our group how beginning our lessons with some manner of interest-grabbing device could prepare our students to learn. This might be a question: How much money do you have in your pocket? Did you see [insert popular television show] last night?

Or it might be something you have brought with you: one year I had to teach Marketing which was not in my field but has had a lot of relevance in my life, especially now that I am an author. In marketing there is something that the textbook called the marketing mix. I brought in my blender, set it up on the desk, added paper titles of all the elements that make up the marketing mix, plus water. Then I turned it on. Those lackadaisical grade twelve students came alive throughout this demonstration and my lesson was a hit. (Of course tipping over the blender full of gooey paper later in the trunk of my car was not such a hit with my husband!)

Or the anticipatory set might be something you say. “Come into the bathroom,” I said to my husband and two teen-aged kids, “and I’ll show you a trick.” After the usual amount of kidding and kibbitzing, they followed me and I pointed out that I felt all three of them needed help in learning how to change the empty toilet paper roll for a full one. As they giggled and guffawed, I did the lesson. We all had fun and, amazingly, from that day toilet paper rolls got changed by everyone, not just me.

Our readers need anticipatory sets in order to become engaged in our writing. Volumes have been written on the first paragraph, the first page, the first word even, whether we should start a novel with a question, with a preface, with an action scene–you name it. We writers search long and hard to find that certain something that will lure the fly into our various webs.

Try going to the library or the closest book store and do a study of first pages of books in your genre or not. Which ones use a certain technique that forces you to keep reading? Make note of ten different techniques or books which lure you in and then try each of them out on your work-in-progress or for new projects. Remember that anticipatory set phrase and make sure each opening makes the reader need to read on.

Consider leaving a comment on your own experiences with anticipatory set both in writing, speaking, and life.

Download your free copy of 10 Ways to Improve Your Writing from the link in the side column!

Coming Soon!

The Loyalist’s Wife by Elaine Cougler

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11 thoughts on “What is Your Favorite First Line?

  1. I loved this article, Elaine. Starting in an appealing manner is always difficult, but writing offers the advantage of time and deletion. Experience has taught me to rely on the inspiration of the moment rather than to rehearse an opening. The faces I see give me the clue, let’s say. It’s worked fine so far!
    Thank you for your inspiring thoughts!

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    • I so love your point that writing offers a chance to revise, unlike teaching or speaking in public. Once you’ve said it, the line lives forever good or bad. You sound like me, Marta, in that you are able to speak on the spur of the moment. My humour is like that, too. I can’t tell a joke to save my life but that last minute witticism is something I absolutely love to do.

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  2. I’m a spur of the moment kind of guy. Ask my wife, she’ll tell you. I’m learning to slow down though, so I don’t get my horse before the wagon, even in my writing. Rewriting has become an addiction for me as I compile many books for publication. This will slow all writers down, and that’s a good thing. Cheers, The eagle guy! Don

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    • Hey, thanks, Brinda. I’m surprised a talented writer such as yourself had trouble with an opening yesterday but it just goes to show that we all struggle. Getting that right phrase, sentence, nuance takes work no matter how much writing we’ve done. I hope you’ve found it by today!

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