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« Writing Contests: Should you take a shot? | Main | The Truth Revealed! »
Friday
Oct302009

Friday Face Off: Is the First Line THAT Important?

 

With the recent opening paragraph contests over at Nathan Bransford's and Lori Brighton's blogs, along with reading Hooked, I'm getting seriously paranoid about the gravity of sentence one of page one in chapter one.
In Hooked, Les Edgerton says:
Your first sentence or paragraph may be the most important writing in your story. They may well be what sells your manuscript to an agent or editor.
It also can be the difference maker on a sale to a reader later on. I have to admit that I am one of those people that opens to the first page and reads the first line when I'm browsing in a bookstore. Even Amazon posts the opening line underneath the titles of many of their books. I read the blurb for the book too, but a great opening line can win me over. So we may only have seconds to impress that agent/publisher/reader.
No pressure, right?
So what the heck makes a great opening sentence? Les suggests that the first sentence is "part of the whole" and should contain at least a hint of the end.
When I first read that, I was like, oh hell, that seems impossible. But then I thought through some great opening lines I've read and he's right. Many opening sentences hint at the theme or foreshadow future events if only in a subtle way.
I grabbed a few random books off my shelves for some examples:
The whole enormous deal wouldn't have happened, none of it, if Dad hasn't messed up his hip moving the manure spreader.--Dairy Queen, Catherine Murdock
Just when I though my day couldn't get any worse I saw the dead guy standing next to my locker.--Marked, PC Cast and Kristen Cast
The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years--if it ever did end--began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.--It, Stephen King
Years later Amy would remember the day she saw inside the spider house.--Nazareth Hill, Ramsey Campbell
Sybil Davison has a genius I.Q. and has been laid by at least six different guys.--Forever, Judy Blume
As an interactive horror experience, with beasts from Hell, mayhem, gore, and dismemberment, it was an impressive event. As a high school prom, however, the evening was marginally less successful.--Prom Dates From Hell, Rosemary Clement-Moore
Great lines, right? Made me want to read more for sure. And having read these books, each one of these hints at the overall theme or the ending.
When I'm writing a rough draft, I try not to think about this heavily weighted line, but at the same time, I think if you can get that first line in decent shape early on, it can help guide you through the rest of the book.
Here are the openings from both my romance (which I've posted once before) and my newest WIP. (The new WIP is just started, so this line will probably change because although it hints at theme, it doesn't hint at end.) You can let me know if these hook you or not.
From Wanderlust:

 

Southern gentility be damned. Nice was getting her nowhere. Aubrey Bordelon put her hands on her hips and attempted an I-mean-business face. “Look, I’m not here to get laid.”

 

From Exposure Therapy:

 

 

Brynn LaBreck’s date was spiraling toward DEFCON 1—imminent disaster. Her sexy banker had jumped from possible fantasy fulfiller to potential therapy client in a span of twenty minutes.

 

 

So what do you think about the whole first line emphasis? Do you believe it's well-founded or do you think we shouldn't stress so much about one simple sentence/paragraph? What are your first lines or what's your favorite first line from a book?

**Today's Theme Song**
"Ten Seconds to Love" - Motley Crue
(player in sidebar, go ahead and take a listen)

 

Reader Comments (31)

I think they are super important. And I think I'm no good at them. It's something I'm going to really focus on later, though. If I stopped to get it just right, I'd never move on. I will, of course, go back and rewrite until I'm pleased with mine. I like yours. :)

October 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSusan R. Mills

I think that a first line emphasis is important, but only in the sense that you need to entice your reader to keep reading. I don't stress out too much over it, but I put in enough time to make sure that it's the most perfect line in the whole book. xD

One of my favorite first lines is "Outside the universe, there is nothing," from The New Jedi Order:Traitor by Matthew Stover. And yes, I'm admitting that I read Star Wars books now and again. xD

October 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterInsanity

I have a confession. When I read the start of Wanderlust on first scan I thought it said "Southern Genitalia be damned". Which I though was a damn good opening line.

The real version is good, don't get me wrong. I just have a filthy mind.

I'll go back and sit on the naughty step now.

October 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGem

I like the examples you gave of first lines, and I like your first lines too. :)

Regarding the importance of that first line: thank goodness for second drafts. And third drafts. Even though I'll tweak (or sometimes completely change) my first line time after time in my sh*tty first draft, I don't want to put too much pressure on myself on the first draft. I always put some pressure, though--it's too hard not to. ;) Opening lines that hint at the theme or foreshadow somehow while feeling inviting to the reader--wow. You're absolutely right, and it's good to keep those things in mind while we write/revise.

On a side note, there's a little something for you at my blog. :)

October 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDawn Simon

I never paid attention to first lines until I discovered that everyone else did, and even then it's only to make sure the ones in my novels are really good. While it certainly makes sense to try and hook the reader from the first sentence, on a personal level I couldn't care less what the first line in a book is so long as the story ends up being a good one!

October 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTracy

The Judy Bloom one is my favorite. I don't have any books on me so I can't write any others. I think a good opening souds cool when you write them individually here but I would lean more toward a good first page.

I think real question is what first line could be so horrible than an agent/editor stopped reading after one sentence? I would love to hear those. And how many authors submit with something different as a first line and then gets help from an agent/editor and its changed before publication?

I know a lot of titles are changed later, Twilight was originally called "Forks" when Stephenie Meyer submitted it.

I say write the whole book and see if something brilliant comes but don't force it because it will probably sound that way.

October 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJulie

I think it's well-founded. Found you through Dawn's blog award. Congratulations. I've found myself paying more attention to first lines after these contest also.

The other night I picked up and put down two books b/c they didn't grab me. So I get the pressure thing when I write.

I love how you gave us numerous examples of first lines from books you own. Great idea.
~ Wendy

I love both your opening lines!!!

I think an opening line is important. I have a process when I hunt for books. Sadly cover and title is important to me...it's what I see first and if they doesn't entice me, well...the book doesn't get picked up. Then I read the blurb on the back. If that passes...it's on to the first page. I do read at least the first paragraph...so maybe first line isn't quite as critical for me...but that first paragraph better wow me!

I know I start my MS with dialog...not sure what people think of that...but it definitely pulls you into the scene right off the bat. Actually, I just went and looked...I start most of my projects with dialog...hmmmmm...interesting....

October 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie

Oh and interesting about the first line hinting at the end....I will file that in my brain under useful knowledge!! Thanks!

October 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie

Well done on the opening lines! I choose books by the blurb, I never open and look inside until I'm ready to read. I've looked through my books, at first lines (including bestsellers) and haven't found any that would sell me on that one line alone.

I know two people who NEVER read books before they've read the last page...

October 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDeb@RGRamblings

As you knwo I read Hooked and loved it and it remains one of my most favorite reference books. However, ol' Les and I disgaree about what makes a great opening line. He cites his own story several times, and while it's good, it's not great. I think opening lines are subjective...so think of ones that have appealed to YOU.

My most favorite is Marian Keyes' Watermelon, which I picked up at random one time in a Dallas bookstore, having never heard of her before. And her first line got me because it was the hook--and THAT'S what I look for. It was something along the lines of "Today I gave birth to my daughter and my husband left me." WOW! That hooked me but it might not hook someone else.

October 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSierra Godfrey

as always another great post :)

October 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAsh. Elizabeth

I do think they're important BUT I kind of get a twitch whenever I hear "Hook". A first line should invite your reader in, not trick them.
Hook by making a reader want to read more is good. Hook by being flashy and promising something and not delivering is bad.

October 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer Shirk

I think first lines are important but that we don't need to stress out over them near as much as we do.

I think first lines are crucial to setting tone and pacing and such, but at the same time I try not to worry too much.

Here's my first line. "Zaidin Trinity’s front room at the Academy was austere, to say the least." It might change. It probably will change. But it works for now.

I love the opening line to Pride and Prejudice.

October 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie L. McGee

Whenever I think of first words, I think of The Poisonwood Bible. Beautiful first paragraph, Beautiful. You could tell she worked hard on that one, the passion was so rich. Opulent. She didn't keep it up the rest of the book, and it would have been too much, but it got me hooked big time.

October 30, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterjdcoughlin

I used to look at first lines when choosing books, but now I rely more on the description inside the book jacket, and I listen to suggestions made on other blogs. I do want to be drawn into the story, but the very first line doesn't have to blow me away.

My favorite first line that I've read recently is from Carrie Ryan's The Forest of Hands and Teeth. Can't remember the exact wording, but it really set the tone of the book.

October 30, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermelane

I think a first paragraph is very important. It reveals the tone of the book and the style of the writer. It also hooks you into the story. Hopefully the reader wants to know more about the character and what happens to the character.

It is the hook. In screenplay writing we also learned to end each first page with a question so the reader has to turn the page, LOL!

much love

October 30, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterstaceyjwarner

Love your lines, Roni! Hurry up and get published already:) I WILL NOT succumb to this kind of pressure. When my story is finished and has been critiqued by several critique partners that I hold in the highest esteem and it's all shiny and perfect, I'll fix the first line. Right now, I'm working on just writing something people want to read all the way through first, if you follow me:D

October 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTina Lynn

I knew the first line was important, but never grasped how important was until recently. So when I started my last set of revisions, I redid the whole beginning of the book. (You're advice helped me with that.) (Oh, and I just finished the revisions two seconds ago. Done! Haha, we know I'll be back.)

Anyway, I knew it was important for the hook, to grab the reader and thrust them into the story, but I didn't get the concept that it should set the theme until I read this post.

I lucked out though, because my opening line, which is now, "Who knew two tiny fangs would be so hard to find?", actually does set the theme. The entire premise of the book is based on a search. Not, of course, for two vaneer teeth that she needs for a costume, but for much more important things.

Great post, Roni! I am addicted to your blog. Swing by mine - I have a silly Halloween short story posted just for fun.

October 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAjFrey

I hate to admit it, but I'm a cover shopper. Let me back track: first I look for authors I already love, and if I find none, I browse covers in shelf sections I'd read. If I like the cover - or if it seriously offends me - I read the back. If I'm interested in the back, I flip to the first page.

The first line never dawned on me to scrutinize. Probably because I'll read the first about 50 pages before I make a decision if I actually like the book. First 20 if I didn't purchase it, but borrowed it or was given it. So I have to agree with Julie that the first page is the stickler for me.

As for my own novel; well, I wrote that first line, first paragraph, first chapter so meany times I couldn't tell you what it originally read. But, being the fatalist that I am, and after re-reading it because of this post, I think I'm rather pleased with the first line I ended up with. It is:
Amy pressed her back against the wall.

It originally read: Amy's back was against the wall, literally and figuratively. The overall gist of the novel is that Amy is beset with a multitude of choices, none of them arguably right or wrong, and her general means of coping is to dig in and stand solid in the face of adversity.

So, I don't know if my first line depicts the theme or general plot of the novel, but after it was written, it seems to fit to me.

Maybe most first lines are suggested by agents/editors after they read the WIP.

I don't know, but I think it like the question of if you have hooked the agent with your first paragraph; they read much further than that to find a difinitive yes/no answer.

Just my take on this. Thanks Roni for the post. It sure is thought provoking.

............dhole

October 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDonna Hole

I agree that the first sentence should be the kind which hooks you. If I pick up a book which starts with the protagonist being bored, it's going back on the shelf right away, even if his or her life gets less boring later on.

My favorite opening line is, "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful..."

(Found you through Maria Zannini's blog, btw)

October 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMarian

First, I would just like to say that I WISH blogger would figure out to do comments like Wordpress where you can respond directly to each comment underneath each comment. I love responding back to you guys, but this way is so not user friendly. Okay, rant over. :)

Susan, yes getting hung up on it can hold you back from just writing, I agree.

Insanity, I love that: I don't stress, I just make sure it's perfect. :)

Gem, lmao, "southern genitalia", there is some of that in the book, too *snort*

Dawn, thanks and yes thank goodness for multiple drafts

Tracey, I hear ya, a good story has to back it up, that's most important

Julie, I think it'd have to be a pretty bad sentence to turn the agent off sentence one, but a really great one could get them excited. Also, I agree about titles. From what I hear from published authors, the titles almost always change.

Wendy, welcome to the blog. Yes I definitely am one of those who reads that line before I buy as well.

Stephanie, Thanks. And I agree covers are super important, which is stressful since author doesn't get much say on that from what I hear. Also, as for starting with dialogue, hooked warns against it except in certain circumstances. However, this is one point I disagree a bit on. I have read a number of books that started with dialogue and it pulled me right in.

Deb, thanks and I don't know how people do that. I would never read the end first! That's like sacrilege. (Although if a book is going in a direction I don't like, sometimes I jump ahead to check on things. Like in New Moon when Stephenie Meyer sent Edward away, I was like, dude he best be coming back at some point, lol. So I flipped ahead just to see if Edward had dialogue later.)

Sierra, I agree that different things are going to hook different people. If someone only reads literary fiction, then they probably won't be hooked by my lines.

Ash, Thanks!

Jennifer, I agree it shouldn't be a "gotcha!" line then veer off into something different. That's kind of what a prologue does at times for me. Like ooh-here's this creepy murder in action, now chapter 1 let's rewind and start the "real" story.

Stephanie M., yes I think it's not worth pulling our hair out over. At least not in the first few drafts. :)

JD, I haven't read that one, I'll have to check it out.

Melane, I'll have to go look, Forest is in my to be read pile.

Stacey, I guess in our short attention span society, we need to hook them on every darn page, lol.

Tina, Girl, I'm trying! :) And good for you for not succumbing to the pressure.

AJ, I definitely think that line speaks to your overall theme and works. :)

Donna, I think your line definitely speaks to theme while not spelling it out to hit the reader over the head.

Marian, welcome to the blog, hope you stop by again. And that's a great opening line. I also agree that if I open a book and the protag is doing nothing or just waking up for the day, I'm already bored.

October 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRoni @ FictionGroupie

I think of the first line as the bait to my hook. The rest of the first paragraph is the tug on the string that sinks the hook into the fish's mouth. And then you still have to reel it in. In this analogy, the first sentence is enticing, but it's still only a part of the process. It takes some of the pressure off.

October 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTara

Great tip to "hint at the end" in that all important opening line.

October 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAngie Ledbetter

This is my first visit to your blog and I like the way that you have highlighted other bloggers. I always am interested in what good bloggers have to say about others. You seem like a real heavy reader and by providing examples of what you are talking about it is really impressive and made your blog entry stand out. You can tell you spent time putting this together.

October 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTom Bailey

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