Building Your World in Your First Line

by Jonathan Ammon

When we’re leaving a bookstore, my wife Tatiana and I like to play a game: we go through our bag of purchases, and we read aloud the first line from each of the new books. Whoever has the book with the agreed-upon best first line wins.

Our game puts more emphasis on the first line than the casual reader, but it reminds me of the importance of first lines every time I sit down to write. Your first line is the reader’s first impression of your actual work. It will stand out more than any other line in the book—except perhaps the final line, and by then your story is over. Your first line can command attention and can demand that we continue reading.

Tatiana and I find different reasons to elect first-line winners. It might be the style or poetry of the line. It might be the way the line introduces a character. The first line may contain questions that we find ourselves pondering. It might make us laugh.

In a recent first-line contest, Tatiana won with Pete Hautman’s young-adult novel Rash. I was immediately impressed with the first line:

“Gramps, who was born in 1990, once told me that when he was my age the only way to wind up in prison in the USSA (back when it only had one S) was to steal something, kill somebody, or use illegal drugs.”

This line won because it contained so much information about the story world. This single line throws us into a future that we can readily imagine. And it does so with only a few words.

From this first line we know that the novel takes place roughly forty years in the future. The USA has become the USSA, which connotes the USSR and a totalitarian state. The line refers to a great increase in incarceration and a young narrator, who has grown up in this world and can’t remember anything different.

That is quite a lot of information and a startling picture. I want to know more. I want to know how the world got this way, what life is like. I bristle at the hint of totalitarianism and mass incarceration. My righteous anger chord has been plucked. I must read on.

Many genres necessitate world-building. Science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, and many more require that your work place the reader within an unfamiliar world. Good writing requires that you show the reader this world, rather than merely tell about it. A riveting story demands that you immerse the reader in your world without losing them.

And your first line is a perfect place to start. Let’s look at how some other authors used their first lines to build a world.

“I see in Lunaya Pravda that Luna City Council has passed on first reading a bill to examine, license, inspect—and tax—public food vendors operating inside municipal pressure.”
~Robert A. Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

The first line of Heinlein’s 1966 Hugo Award winning science-fiction novel plunges us into political and class conflict. The name of the newspaper refers to the The Vienna Pravda, a social democratic newspaper founded by Leon Trotsky. We seem to be on a lunar colony, and socialist politics may be at play. The detail that the bill was passed upon first reading comes back later, and “inside municipal pressure” hints at an image of a city or civilization that lives in an artificial atmosphere that’s part of a government-provided infrastructure. We pick up all these details while hardly thinking about it, and before we realize all that we’ve learned, we’re reading on, fascinated by this new world.

Patricia Mckillip begins her famous fantasy trilogy with this first line from The Riddle Master of Hed,

“Morgon of Hed met the High One’s Harpist one autumn day when the trade-ships docked at Tol for the season’s exchange of goods.”

We may not have as firm a grasp on what Mckillip’s world looks like, but it’s a confident opening that doesn’t shy away from throwing us right into her mysterious creation.

Perhaps your work is more realistic or more literary. Check out the first line of Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven:

“Although it was winter, the nearest ocean four hundred miles away, and the Tribal Weatherman asleep because of boredom, a hurricane dropped from the sky in 1976 and fell so hard on the Spokane Indian Reservation that it knocked Victor from bed and his latest nightmare.”

I think this world is just as strange and fascinating as any of the examples above. We have so many significant details that raise questions and give us access to a foreign context.

John Le Carre’s first novel opens with an introduction to one of the most famous spies in fiction and his world of espionage:

“When Lady Ann Sercomb married George Smiley towards the end of the war, she described him to her astonished Mayfair friends as breathtakingly ordinary.”
~John LeCarre, Call for the Dead

This line both establishes character and builds Le Carre’s world. George Smiley is the anti-James Bond. From this line we know he’s a married (or divorced) middle-aged man whose wife doesn’t find him dashing, daring, or dangerous.

In addition, this opening line is extremely British, with Ann’s title, the mention of Mayfair friends, and the phrase “breathtakingly ordinary,” which I find difficult to imagine in an American accent. “Breathtakingly ordinary” is the perfect description, as Le Carre creates a world of British Intelligence dominated by paperwork, incompetence, and everyday evil.

These opening lines give us proper names of people and places. They give us details. They populate the world of their story with economy, politics, war, or gossip circles. They often sow seeds of conflict or mystery within their worlds. Each detail is familiar enough to be recognized, but specific enough to be unique to the author’s creation.

Some more examples:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
~Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

“Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon, with an 8-ball of coke in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat.”
~Dennis Lehane, “Until Gwen”

One summer afternoon Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary.
~Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

“An abandoned auto out in the San Berdoo foothills; Buzz Meeks checked in with ninety-four thousand dollars, eighteen pounds of high-grade heroin, a 10-gauge pump, a .38 special, a .45 automatic, and a switchblade he’d bought off a pachuco at the border—right before he spotted the car parked across the line: Mickey Cohen goons in an LAPD unmarked, Tijuana cops standing by to bootsack his goodies, dump his body in the San Ysidro River.”
~James Ellroy, L.A. Confidential

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Your mission, should you choose to accept it is:

  • Try crafting a world-building opening line.
  • Try including one or more proper nouns
  • Can you allude to something in common knowledge that will give the reader a feeling or attitude?
  • Introduce a character or object that is specific to your world like Alexie’s “Tribal Weatherman” or Mckillip’s “High One’s Harpist”
  • Can you reference the politics, economy, or infrastructure of your world? Something else about society?
  • Can you open with an outside character or object giving information about the world like “Gramps,” “Ann Sercomb,” or the local newspaper?
  • Try to give the reader hints at five different things about your world.
  • Share your first lines. I’d love to see them.

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