People have a lot to say about pickup lines, which is to say, first lines, but the purpose is the same – to engage the interest of someone. In the case of a story’s first lines, it’s the reader. So what do they say? Here’s just a tiny sample:
“Beginning a novel starts with crafting its very first sentence, which should grab your reader’s attention and lead them right into your story.” – MasterClass https://www.masterclass.com/articles/how-to-write-a-great-first-line-for-your-novel
“Great first lines have that power, the power to entice your reader enough that it would be unthinkable to set the book down.” – The Write Practice https://thewritepractice.com/first-line/
“The first line of a story should create a sense of character, conflict, setting, mood, theme, or style — or any combination thereof. Most importantly, it should make the reader ask questions.” Diane Callahan How to Write a Good First Line https://medium.com/swlh/how-to-write-a-good-first-line-9bfef4399b9d
“No matter what genre you write, your first sentence is a seduction. It can be in the form of an invitation. A declaration. A tease. A promise. A jolt. A shock.
You must be shameless and your first sentence must be irresistible. It must induce curiosity and promise the answer to an urgent question.” Ruth Harris in Anne R Allen’s Blog https://annerallen.com/2018/04/how-to-write-a-great-first-sentence/
When the reader opens the book to that first line, it’s as if they’re opening up a line of credit with the author. But the tricky thing about that credit is that it has no substance right from the start. The reader could just give you one line and, if they don’t like it, they can close the book and move on to something else to read. Hence why writing a first line is so important.” The power of first lines in fiction by Josh Sippie https://www.writermag.com/improve-your-writing/fiction/the-power-of-first-lines-in-fiction/
And so it goes. Anyone who knows about writing will tell you just how important the first line of your story or novel is.
And many of them will offer you from seven to a dozen different ways to craft a first line. To pick some random ones: begin by stating your theme, or with a strange detail. You can establish your character’s voice, convey the stakes, or set the scene.
Bridge McNulty at Now Novel https://www.nownovel.com/blog/great-first-lines-of-novels/ sets out five types of novel openings: The Teaser, The Autobiographer, The Talker, The Announcer, and The Scene Setter. In short, there is a ton of advice on how to write your first lines that is readily available to every new and old author.
Now, take off your writer’s hat and put on your reader’s cap. How many books have you put down after reading the first line? How many first lines do you recall? I am rather curious because for me, after six decades of reading, I don’t think a first line ever meant anything to me. And I’m a ruthless reader – if a book doesn’t engage my interest in the first couple of pages, or chapters, I have no problem putting it down. I’ve got better things to do with my life than spend it reading a book I am not enjoying. But even so, I’ll give a book more than a line or two to engage me.
I suspect that the perceived importance of first lines in a story is a writer’s thing. A kind of a writer’s in-game to see who can come up with the most perfect first line. And I guess, I’m not immune from that game myself. I must admit that I do spend some time on my first lines – though I do not obsess over them. In fact, I put more time into crafting my closing lines, as I think they might be more important than the opening lines. They are the “landing” that you need to stick, if a book is to work. I often have them set along with my first lines before I start writing the story, serving as my target ending.
What got me to thinking about first lines was a blog post from Mark Lawrence where he listed the first lines from his novels and short stories. You can find that blog post here. I found a number that I thought were very clever (but I like clever writing.) I’ve posted my first lines on my blog from my published and from some of unpublished scraps here. Looking over my first lines, I find that they can be divided into three categories: boring scene setting ones, “The Scene Setter”, ones that open with dialog, “The Talker”, and the ones where I make some attempt at cleverness and foreshadowing, the “The Teaser.”
There are many memorable, pithy, clever, or shocking first lines in literature. So, as a bonus, here are several lists of famous first lines:
So, how important are first lines to you, as both a writer, and as a reader? And as a writer, why not post some of your first lines in the comment section. Or post a link to your collection of first lines. As I suggested, it’s something of a game, dare to play?
I’m impressed by the number of your first lines, Chuck! Granted, some are from unpublished or unfinished works, but still, they represent a lot of works.
Like many of the “rules” we read about, I suspect the emphasis on first sentences comes from people who have to read a lot of submissions, such as agents and editors. Maybe some of them reject a piece of writing if the first line doesn’t compel them to read the second one. I guess when you have to work your way through dozens of pieces of writing, you may just adopt such a practice.
Like you, I usually have a definite ending in mind when I’m writing something. Sometimes it is an actual final sentence, but more often a scene. And as a reader, I’ve never given up on a book or story after reading just one sentence.
Like you, I tend to focus more on how I end a story then how I begin it. I’ve never really thought much about whether the first line is an attention-grabber. I do recall that I wasn’t very happy with the opening line of The Dime, but then a couple of other people told me that they loved how I started it. So, who am I to judge whether or not my first lines get it done.
But there is one thing I disagree with. You say that this focus on the first line is maybe a writer’s game. I think it is more of a game for agents and publishers and how you have to catch their attention immediately or you don’t have a shot. I know you self-publish, so agents and publishers likely don’t matter to you, but they still have quite a bit of weight on the entire industry.
For me, I view the opening chapter, or maybe the first 10-20 pages, to be what matters. And even that bothers me – that writers aren’t given a chance to draw a reader in slowly, like reeling in a fish. No, we have to go for the big bang. We can’t set the scene, we can’t lay the foundation. We have to go right for the throat or we’re at risk of losing the reader.
I’ve told this story a number of times. Years ago, I read The Kite Runner. After the first chapter, I wasn’t really sure what it was that I was reading and wasn’t sure if I would continue. But I did. It’s one of my favorite books and I’ve read it several times since. It’s a shame to consider how many good stories readers have lost out on because of this dynamic.
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I think Audrey said much of the same thing; first lines are mostly important to people who have to read a lot of submissions, since it might be used as a quick way to gauge the skill of the writer. Though these days I gather that the first hurdle is to engage an agent, and for that you need to do it with the first lines of a query letter…. And then again with a synopsis, even before they look at the story’s first lines.
We’ll see how it all works. My intention is to go the traditional publishing route with my current project. Why not? I don’t see that I have anything to lose by giving it a good, determined try, what with the narrow focus and big spending you need to succeed in self publishing these days. If (i.e. when) that doesn’t work, I may try some alternate way of publishing. I hear that you can make millions on Kickstarter. As I said, we’ll see.
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