I’m researching beginnings of a story in some detail for my website, but it got me thinking about first lines and what they are, how they are used and if they actually work.
It’s common knowledge for many authors that the first, few lines in a story carry a bit of extra weight above all others (it could be argued that the closing lines do as well, but if the reader doesn’t turn to page 2.. )
The reason for this is that they have an additional role to perform other than starting the story and this role can be defined in a number of ways;
- a promise to the reader,
- a simple sales pitch,
- a hook (probably most common)
There is a short BBC interview here with Richard Ford where he discusses a few of these as the interviewer feels his opening lines may give too much away.
Regardless of definition, the theory is similar; to make sure people become interested in your story as soon as possible and buy your novel in preference to the next one on the shelf.
How can a first line do this? Well, there can be a number of ways;
- Action. The big bang. Screw all the boring information – just cut to the chase (literally). An author needs to be careful to make sure that the rest of the book can keep up (or surpass) the opening otherwise the enthusiasm and energy the author has instilled in the reader can quickly dwindle.
- Establish character. This is more of a subtle opening and is useful for stories where the plot is driven by the characters, rather than the other way around.
- Scene setting. Often contains little action, but can be useful if you’re trying to introduce a place or a plot item ahead of the character. If done badly, it can send the reader to sleep. Epic Fantasy seems to suffer from this more than any other genre, with some authors wanting you to know an entire history of a land before they will let you see what’s happening right now.
How critical should the first line be? I remember hearing on a Podcast (and I can’t remember where so the figure is probably incorrect) that other than the cover and the blurb on the back of the book (which is often out of the author’s control), the only chance you have to sell your book to a customer is with the opening line and, in an average book-store, a customer may take your book off the shelf for as little as thirty seconds before putting it back.
If that all sounds too much, or you’re just feeling lucky, you could always give the grey matter a rest.
Chances are though, that if your first lines aren’t upto-scratch then the story may never reach the bookshelf at all. Consider the amount of manuscripts that an average publisher receives a year and most people won’t be surprised to hear that very few are read for more than a few paragraphs before a decision is made.
Ironically, it is still possible to put in all of the hard work to achieve some good first lines and have the publishing house agree to buy you book and yet the unthinkable can still happen.
As with most things, first lines can be very subjective. After all, we don’t all like the same authors or read the same books. As a quick exercise, I did a Google search for websites that mention ‘first lines in a book’ to see if any lines keep re-occurring. Bearing in mind, the websites I trawled through covered many genres and periods, there were a few that did appear a number of times.
However, it would be interesting to see if the promise/sales-pitch/hook worked as well as they should and would ask if you can guess the books without using Google;
Call me Ishmael
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
I am a sick man . . . I am a spiteful man.
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
It was a pleasure to burn.
It was the day my grandmother exploded.
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel
One negative point I do have is that many of the famous first lines actually derive from famous books and I’m still unconvinced that some lines are only famous due to the number of people that actually read them as opposed to being something special.
Finally, there’s a saying that I’ve read that talks about how the first line of a novel sells your current book whilst the last line of a novel sells your next book. It’s certainly an interesting statement and I’ll be taking a look at the closing lines of novels shortly.