Every book has one.
They have evolved. A lot. The changing tastes of the audience and the way people look at books have made them change with time. Of course, many people (and me) blame Twitter for some of this. People are now used to short bursts of information. Limited and, by definition, deficient, but short and sweet. Many people, social and medical scientists, indicate that the attention span is getting shorter. People want immediate gratification. They don’t want the nine months or the labor pains, they just want the baby. This may be. However, I think there may be something for the “old styles”.
Some authors maintain that what you need is a solid first page. The first four to five hundred words are the ones that’ll either hook your audience or lose the reader.
Every single current writing course, YouTube post, blog, or advice column comes with an admonition, “you have to have a great first line.” Not just good, mind you. Great. It has to be great. It has to transport your reader to another plane of existence, give them an out of body experience, a sublime unique event, the line must be, in a word, orgasmic. Yeah. And you thought writing the book was hard, now we have to deal with the first line.
So, how did we get here?
Well, let’s not go all the way back to the beginning of time, but let us go back a little.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” Whew! Sixty words on the first line, we knew immediately we were going in for a long, complex read. Charles Dickens published “A Tale of Two Cities” in 1859. It is a classic. Most people will recognize the first two phrases. If they are Trekkies, they will recall Captain Kirk quoting it in “The Wrath of Khan”. However, you’ll be hard-pressed to find people that will know the whole first sentence, most will know those two phrases or, at most, the first four. Almost no one will know the whole sentence. It is, however, very evocative and, in its day, absolutely brilliant. It set up the story and gave you the duality implied in the title. In today’s market… I’m not sure an editor, any editor, would accept it as a viable first line.
All right, we saw a long one. Let’s take a look at a short one. “Call me Ishmael.” OK, that’s short, just three words. It’s from Herman Melville’s novel “Moby-Dick”, published in 1851. Of course, the next sentence is forty words long and has a full set up for the story. Ishmael was broke, had no family ties, and wanted to see the world. By boat, as was the only viable way at the time. Again, most of our contemporaries will recognize the name of the monster, of “The Whale”, which was the alternate title, but few if any would recognize the long sentence that followed. They may recognize this quote: “And he piled upon the whale’s white hump, the sum of all the rage and hate felt by his whole race. If his chest had been a cannon, he would have shot his heart upon it.” Especially if they are hardcore Trekkies since Pickard quotes it in “First contact.” But I digress.
Let’s take a look at the first line of an epistolary style novel: “You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.” Just twenty-three words. But, wow, what words! They throw us in the middle of what is obviously an intimate conversation, albeit by letters. This is from 1818, so it is most likely between men. They are probably business partners and one is telling the other that, despite his doubts and lack of confidence, the thing is going well. A great first line. And it is from a very successful book. The line comes from “Frankenstein”, also known as “The Modern Prometheus”. Today, however, just as having your protagonist wake up on the first page, or have amnesia, this is considered a trope, and to be avoided. However… it is a great line, isn’t it? It would work, even today. It’s long, maybe. It’s old fashioned, surely. But I think it is pretty good. It hooked me the first time I read the book and still catches me when I read it.
And, of course, I could not do this without including something from 1870. “The year 1866 was marked by a bizarre development, an unexplained and downright inexplicable phenomenon that surely no one has forgotten.” Much like the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, this starts as if this was a newspaper article or a comment of one. It was a style very popular at the time. Of course, this is the first line of “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas: A World Tour Underwater” by Jules Verne. These twenty-one words work the reader in a way that was popular at the time. It implies that you know what’s coming, that you may have forgotten it, but that as soon as you start reading, it will all came back to you. It is a familiar style, it is a device that effectively makes an intimate connection with the reader. Of course, our friend the modern editor would probably tell the author to “cut this out, get to the action already”. I don’t know, I still like to be brought in close by the author, to feel a friendly voice in the dark, guiding me through perils and triumphs, but that may be just me.
Let’s get away from well-known classics. Let’s see something from the 1960s.
“I see in Lunaya Pravda that Luna City Council has passed on first reading a bill to examine, license, inspect – and tax – public food vendors operating inside municipal pressure.” Twenty-nine words. If it got to an editor today, it’d get kicked back immediately. We, in the Science Fiction reading community, would find it intriguing. So, they speak Russian on the moon? Really? How come not English? Also, such a mundane thing to start a novel with, but at the same time, it lets us know that they are regular people, they put on their pants one leg at a time. They worry about taxes. Maybe you have figured out that this is the first line from “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” Robert Heinlein’s 1966 novel.
Let’s try another one that would probably get kicked back from the editor’s desk today. “Admiral’s compliments, and you’re to come to his office right away.” That gives us nothing. At all. But it’s short, so in modern eyes, better, in a sense, since it’s only eleven words. And yet, it is an exceptionally good novel. That’s the first line of “The Mote in God’s Eye” a science fiction novel by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, from the dark ages, 1974 to be exact. It is a very complex and elaborate story having to do with three armed aliens, their peculiarities, and their interaction with the human race. Let’s say it is clear from the beginning that they have fascinating characters and situations. I love the way the aliens are introduced, the attention to their physiology and anatomy. The alien science and how it makes sense for humans. A fascinating novel.
Let’s keep going. Let’s try something from the not so distant past.
Full disclosure, many reviews of this stand-alone novel, which is part of a series, were less than kind. In fact, they found it disappointing that there was so much dialogue and so little action. I, however, found it thought-provoking and extremely enjoyable. I also found it to be a cross over Science Fiction Fantasy, in the same sense that Star Wars is more fantasy than Science fiction. I know, we can discuss that later. Any way. Here is the first line: “The low-angled daylight dimmed suddenly on the page of a poem by Alfred Noyes that Walter the InTeacher was reading.” That would most likely be tossed out by modern editors. No action, nothing to grab and hold the reader. Me? I loved it. I found it interesting the first time I read it, and all the times I’ve reread it over the years. It is the perfect bucolic, calm, careless, and carefree set up for the intense incessant action that follows quickly, to then slow down again. Just like life, it is a book that has intense moments of interaction as well as moments of calm and introspection. The quote is from “The Final Encyclopedia” by Gordon R. Dickson published in 1984.
Now, let’s jump all the way to the recent past. Let’s review a modern first line: “Sound struggled to make its way through the thick synth-amneo fluid.” Eleven words. Action on the first two words. Effort and conflict in the first six words. Tactile sensations in the first nine words. Well, now that’s a modern first line. It reaches out and grabs you. Puts you right in the middle of things, immediately evokes sensations, no warm-up, no warning, just BAM! Let’s go! Now! That is the first line of “Six Wakes” by Mur Lafferty, from 2017, Hugo and Nebula award nominee. The rest of the story is very well crafted. It breaks all the norms regarding tropes, but it is brilliantly written and executed. The first line is everything modern editors love. Action packed, sensual, intriguing. Suggests the genre and the rhythm of the story to come. It is, truly, a brilliant first line.
So, let me be egocentric for a second or two. Or three.
This is one of my first lines, from a novel that got kicked in the gut (with a steel toed boot) by an editor, from the first line to the last line.
First line: “It was cool under the trees.”
Last line: “That’s me.”
From what we have seen you can tell that, although it is short and has sensory input, it’s boring. The last line, I include because, according to the editor, was the salvageable one from the book. Yeah. Well. Anyway. First-line. Didn’t work because it is about something mundane. Gives nothing regarding genre, it is passive and uninteresting.
My current work in progress has a first line that you may think is a joke.
That’s it. That’s the first line. I’m quite sure, it’s not going to get quoted a lot. It should, however, be a gateway for the rest of the book.
So, what do you think? Are longer first-lines better? Are shorter ones more effective? Should we agonize over them so much?
Let me know. I’d love to hear from you.
Thank you for reading and have a great day.
3 thoughts on “What’s the big deal with first lines?”
I like a moody first sentence or an intriguing (suspenseful) one. I like incoming, but what comes after that needs to be even better.
Thanks, appreciate the feedback.
I think the opening line, much like the title, acts as the “elevator pitch”. You need get the reader’s attention ASAP.