The tyranny of the first line

About half the time I sit down to write a new story, I'm working with little more than an interesting first line.

A great first sentence suggests a premise without constraining it. It creates room to unfold an idea. I've been surprised how a single line, like a baobab seed, gathers what it needs to grow into something you would never imagine from its humble beginning. It's one of the reasons writing feels like wielding arcane magic that is barely under your control. If I foresee the complete plot of a story from the moment I begin writing, I'll often abandon the tale half-told. 

What also surprises me is how frequently those wondrous first lines turn out to be schlock that must be deleted from the final version. 

A dead man was minding the counter at the Shop-In, and doing a terrible job of it. 

That one just got dropped from a story I'm editing. I loved that line, for a time, but when I showed the story to one of my writers groups, they were not impressed by the opener. It turned out that the two sentences that followed, which more subtly dramatized the fact that the man at the cash register was something other than alive, were stronger introductions to the story.

Another example:

She's in love with a beautiful fire.

That isn't even a very strong opener, but it was one of those instances in which a few stray words conjured up an entire premise in my mind. And, halfway through the first draft, I can already see it has to go.

First lines, like first loves, can be so intoxicating, and yet they are seldom the partners we end up embracing.