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Wednesday
Oct132010

Is the First Line Really THAT Important?

 

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Photo by Vinni 123
I've officially started the second book in my contemporary erotic romance series. Yay! (For those of you who have beta read for me, this will be Jace's story.) So I'm facing down that daunting task of writing the all-important first chapter. And what does that chapter start with? The first line of course.

Some writers think the emphasis on the first line is unfounded, believing that as long as your first page is strong, you're good to go. But others believe that first line is vital to hooking your reader. I tend to lean toward the latter.

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.
But even more importantly it 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.

It makes me think that this author is thoughtful--that if they took the time to come up with a rocking first line, the book is probably going to be good. 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:
Olivia Quinn knew she was losing her husband when she discovered his knockout junior partner caressing his crotch by the azalea bush.--When Alex Was Bad, Jo Davis
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
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 writing a rough draft, I try not to stress about this heavily weighted line. But at the same time, I know if I can get that first line in decent shape early on, it will help guide me through the rest of the book. Will keep the theme in my head. So I end up putting a lot of time into it anyway. 
 
So how about you? What do you think about the whole first line emphasis? Do you wait until you finish drafting to worry about coming up with the perfect first line? What are your first lines or what's your favorite first line from a book?

*This post is a revamped version of one I did in October 2009. Thanks to Sierra, who got me thinking about this post again. 
 
 
 
**Today's Theme Song**
"Ten Seconds to Love" - Motley Crue
(player in sidebar, go ahead and take a listen)

 

Reader Comments (37)

Roni,

I have recently come around to the first line hook philosophy. And, Edgerton's book was instrumental in that. I check 1st lines 1st when opting for enjoyment.
Great post.

Thank You,

Patti Struble

October 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPatti Struble

ack I have to and work on my opening line now.

October 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJoanna St. James

Great examples. They certainly seem to stick out as powerful. :O)

October 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDiane

Thanks for the shout out and I really agree that there is huge importance on first lines, which is one of the reasons I'm a bit frustrated right now.

Coming up with a good one is an art.

You said, "It makes me think that this author is thoughtful--that if they took the time to come up with a rocking first line, the book is probably going to be good."

This is such a good point. YES! The author HAS been thoughtful--about plot, and story, and entertaining the reader and a lot less about impressing his or herself. This is a very subtle point but a true one, I think.

And even if it isn't true, we should be aware that this is the impression first lines give.

October 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSierra Godfrey

I literally pull my hair out over the first line! I agree with you that it's really important to have a good hook.

October 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKristen

I think it's worth putting time into it. I read about agents requesting fulls based off of one line in a query, so clearly one line can make a difference. Why not make the first line make that difference? Nothing to lose.

October 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLaura Pauling

It was a dark and stormy night...

October 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTeri Anne Stanley

I definitely think the first line is something you worry about later on. Once you've written the first draft and know the entire premise, it's easier go back and make the beginning perfect. Also, I think the first sentence should be pretty good, but as a reader, I pay more attention to the first few paragraphs when deciding if something is for me, not merely the first line.

Jessica

October 13, 2010 | Unregistered Commentercoffeelvnmom

I think the first line is important but WAY overblown by some bloggers and other advice givers.

And like a good title, I think a good first line should be perfected when the book is all written. Otherwise, it's so easy to get hung up and stuck at the very beginning!

I agree with Coffeelvnmom. I never, ever read just a first sentence to decide whether I'm interested in a book. The back cover/dust jacket and a flip through the middle are much more informative for me.

October 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGenie of the Shell

I usually read the first few paragraphs, but they have to have something that grabs me. I think the first line is actually pretty fun to create. :)

October 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterOddyoddyo13

Guess I'm more lenient. But I want the first paragraph to show me something about the character and what's s/he's facing.

October 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKay Theodoratus

That first line in Marked really hooked me when I was wondering if I should read it or not. And yeah, those are great first lines.

Right now, my first line is a dialogue, bold with attitude. It might change, but I'm hoping it'll interest the reader.

October 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTessa Quin

Wen writing, I don't sweat over the perfect first line (or paragraph, or chapter) until I've got a complete first draft.

Only then do I feel ready and properly equipped to write a beginning that takes the story full-circle, and starts the reader off with something intriguing.

When I'm browsing for a book, a good first sentence is usually indicative of the rest of the writing, so I usually go back to the opening and read it a second time before I decide to buy.

Great post!

October 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTere Kirkland

Thanks for this! It's something I've been thinking about a lot.

http://sarahjraines.wordpress.com/2010/04/03/first-sentence/

October 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSarah

On my latest project, I got the first line down to my satisfaction before even outlining. It has helped me stay on track because I know the theme and the direction I want to go. Now, that's not to say that I won't still change it a zillion times before all is said and done. :)

October 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSusan R. Mills

Wah. This post just stressed me out. I'm going to pretend I never read it and then come back to it when I'm mentally prepared to hack apart my first chapter.

Brb. :)

October 13, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermadameduck

Yay for Jace!

October 13, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterj.leigh.bailey

Honestly, it's one of the first things I'll look for at a book store. If the cover catches my eye (yes, I judge books by their covers, unless they've been referred to me by a like-minded reader), then I go to the back cover, then the first page. If the first line's appealling, then I'll consider it.

You should check out this blog post - I laughed so hard...

http://querypolitan.blogspot.com/2010/07/what-you-can-tell-from-fiction-novels.html

October 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKathryn

I don't believe the first line is vital in hooking a reader. At least not vital to me, and I am an avid reader. The first page is imperative, the first line, not really. That said, the first line means a great deal to agents and editors.

The first line is far more important to me as a writer. It sets the tone of my book from the outset and evolves as the book evolves.

One of my favorite opening lines:
I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. (Gillian Flynn - DARK PLACES)

October 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterVR Barkowski

I think the first line is vital in terms of getting the reader to continue reading. I'm not sure a first line necessarily has to hint at what's to come, though. But I do like novels where the first line pulls me right into the chapter, makes me want to keep reading.

I'm always revising my first lines, it seems!

October 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBelle

The first line is more important than ever with those little Amazon preview things. But I think for most writers, it should be the last thing you actually write.

Don't worry about a killer first line of your first draft, because it may be quite a different book when you finish. If you're married to that line you agonized over for weeks, you may not let yourself write the one the book actually needs.

October 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnne R. Allen

I agree with a lot of these comments. My books usually take a very different spin than I expected as I write and come to know my characters more intimately. I think if you want your first line foreshadowing the rest of the book it should definately be one of the last things you perfect.

October 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterHeagar

I only ever pay attention to first lines because everyone says I should, and always wait until after my first draft to worry about my own. I don't really care one way or another in the books I read for fun. As long as the first line isn't glaringly out of place and the story is good, I'll keep reading. What can I say - I'm easily entertained...

October 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTracy Loewer

I struggle with first lines. I'm never certain if I've got it right. But I do suggest what is important for the main character of the story.
Nancy
http://nrwilliams.blogspot.com" rel="nofollow">N. R. Williams, fantasy author

October 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterN. R. Williams

I think first lines are important, very important. That's probably why I have such a hard time with the beginning of a story rather than the end.

October 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNicole Zoltack

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