What should the first line of your story do? Grab the reader, of course. How do you do that? For modern writers, usually having something exciting happen works well. Involve at least one sense, and you’ll do even better. The main character hears a scream, smells smoke, sees an airplane nosediving from the sky, touches something icky, tastes something odd.
To complete the first paragraph, be sure to plant the reader someplace specific. The character is most likely not floating out in space. Having her on the move is a good move. Some bit of action that nails the setting helps. Preferably physical action on her part, not in a car unless she’s being chased or crashes it. An airplane will work if she hears a scream or smells smoke or feels the plane taking a nosedive.
Here’s the first paragraph from my current work in progress, BURIED UNDER CLUTTER. Note how I used the senses (sound–scream; touch–fumbling), action, and I hope you can tell how Tina is feeling.
“The scream from next door pierced the cold winter air. Tina whirled around in her driveway and stared at the old, decaying Queen Anne next door then began running toward it. Fumbling in her bag for her cell phone, she almost tripped on the cracked sidewalk leading to the house. Another scream.”
Whatever you do, don’t have the character waking up, unless being attacked, or just sitting around someplace thinking.
To recap, have your character’s senses on alert. Set your character in a specific place, and use a small bit of description to plant the reader. And finally, show the reader how your character is reacting emotionally to what’s going on around her.
A good exercise is to write down in your reader’s notebook every first line and paragraph you read that pulls you into the story. This includes first lines of scenes, not just the first line of a short story or novel.
Next post, more about reader’s and writer’s notebooks.