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First Line Exercise

Updated on June 15, 2011

I was tidying my living room this morning, sorting through many large piles of papers (mostly my eldest son's work - at the age of seven, he is already a very prolific artist, and if he continues at this pace for the next ten years we will need another house to accommodate all of his masterpieces) and I found a notebook with one sentence hastily scribbled at the top of each page. The book was not full (they rarely are - I begin many, but fill few), and I have set it aside to use when the need arises.

Each sentence in the book was a first line. A first line to what, you ask? Well, a first line to whatever you like ... a play, a novel, a short story, a poem, a stream of consciousness. For me, it was an attempt to find out if I had any imagination, a quick go at an exercise that I had read about in a 'how to write...' book. At the time of writing these first lines I must admit that I had only ideas for novels in mind; but you will see that any of them could be used for short stories, certainly plays, and, probably for those very clever people among you who see lines of poetry floating on the very air, with a little tweaking they could be made to have rhythm and transformed into poetry. And I suppose, in a similar way, they might even become lyrics, had you the inclination and aptitude to be able to set them to music. I can't see poetry in them, but that's because I can only do limericks so far.

So I thought I would share them with you. And then I thought that it might be nice to invite you to add to the list of first lines. And then I thought a little more, and wondered whether it might be interesting to invite you to write something using one of the first lines as a ... er, first line. What I thought might be very interesting would be to see how two minds might interpret the same first line differently.

Anyway, here are the lines I came up with:

I'll never forget the first time I saw a dead body.

'Well, I've been Freddie Watson, you've been fantastic, g'night!'

I can't stand this any more, I've got to get away.

At No. 42 there used to be a cupboard under the stairs, and Linda would climb into it when her mum and dad were shouting at each other.

'Price check on haemorrhoid cream please,' the assistant shouted over the tannoy; I could, seriously, have died of shame.

I can remember the face and name of every child I have ever taught.

'Leve me alown, I dont want 2 c u eva agen.'

'If you keep doing that the pixies'll get you,' was what my granddad would say whenever I did something he didn't like.

Nina felt a small hand slip into hers, and then the tears began to roll down her cheeks.

'Champagne, Mrs Winters?'

'Hello, yes ... erm, I've got an appointment with Dr Medhurst, my name's Felicity Stone.'

Although she knew that she was going to do it, she let out a little gasp of surprise as she let the vase drop over the edge.

I find it astonishing that some people can be so self-obsessed, and yet so lacking in self-awareness.

It all started when Bob said that Geoff's wife was as ugly as sin, and Geoff took a swing at Bob, but missed and caught John's wife Tina square on the jaw.

A sharp intake of breath, a short little cough, and just like that, I was dead.

'Who's that knocking at this time of night?'

I witnessed a bloody murder.

'Yes, I'll do it,' I said decidedly, 'and I want a proper contract made up, but I don't want to be paid.'

So there are my first lines. You can do whatever you like with them; ignore them, change them, use them as they are, steal them from me (though it's not stealing, because I've given them freely), make up your own. As an exercise this is probably of no use at all if you are in the middle of a big project and have no time to spare for new ideas; it is excellent for generating ideas though, and for making you feel as though you've been productive when you're fighting a block. I did use one of these first lines about eight months ago - I turned it into the complete first draft of a novel, twenty-six chapters long! So it can be an incredibly useful exercise. As with any exercise, I suppose it depends on the amount of effort you put into it.

If nothing else, this exercise is quite good fun.


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