“Oi”, the dock worker stopped me, “where’s my money?”, his breath frosting out on “money” and stood solid before me in his grease-stained AC/DC T-shirt.

This could be the first line of a thriller. It helps establish a setting without telling. It hooks the attention of the reader. Something that that may be difficult for a writer to achieve since there’s a trade-off between rapidly drawing the reader’s attention and giving a too lengthy description of the setting.

One of the more challenging elements for a poet is to come up with a stunning first line. This blog covers some ideas to consider.

Ideally your first line, or two, should:

  • Help the reader orient themselves by establishing period or place or both;
  • Embody some personal characteristic, e.g. a gesture, a statement or clothing;
  • It could also be a banal description but with some anachronistic or out-of-place detail, a punctum that might make the reader curious: “Dawn over the marshland revealed a child’s bike”.

The first line could be a repeat of the title of the work too.

Although not all poems have a narrative element, if yours does then it could anticipate a problem facing the protagonist that the narrative will explore. However, sonnets are normally not suitable for a narrative thread. They treat instead a place or person, at best a juxtaposition or dilemma. It may nevertheless be useful to consider this. In the above case, the opening line does suggest a sense of urgency which could work in a poem where the tension is resolved in some way. So going back to our line above …

“Oi”, he said and smiled, “I’ve never won the works raffle before. I’ve got my kids to treat”.

20200220 Attention - Image

Copyright Clifford Liles 2020.

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