Thursday, 25 August 2011

Do you remember your first lines?

I am hopeless at remembering quotes and first lines from books. The only first line I half remember is "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." From Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Even though I struggle to remember them I know first lines are paramount. I am guilty of opening a book in a shop, reading the first line and putting the book back. It is important that you get it right else people might not read on. First lines can suck you in or turn you off a book.

Even though I am writing my WIP and have decided to go back and edit it once the first draft is finished I am on the look out for a dazzling first line (and a title but that is a different post!). I know off the top of my head that first lines are meant to grab you, interest you, make you curious to know more. They can set the scene, throw you straight into the story or in some cases shock you. I know I like being shocked by a first line.

I stood in front of my book shelves and picked up some books I know I really enjoyed reading. I looked at the first lines of these books to help me understand what draws me in as a reader. Below I have quoted them (often quoted the first paragraph) and offered a comment on why I like them.

The Lighthouse by PD James
"Commander Adam Dalgliesh was not unused to being urgently summoned to non-scheduled meetings with unspecified people at inconvenient times, but usually with one purpose in common: he could be confident that somewhere there lay a dead body awaiting his attention."

I like a murder mystery. Straight away this tells me that there is going to be a body and also shows me that a first line doesn't have to be short and snappy to grab my attention.

Watermelon by Marian Keyes
"February the fifteenth is a very special day for me. It is the day I gave birth to my first child. It is also the day my husband left me. As he was present at the birth I can only assume the two events weren't entirely unrelated."

The first line makes me want to know why the date is special but it is the following paragraph that shocked me slightly (that someone would leave someone the day they gave birth to your baby) and sucked me in. This and the following quote from The Help show me that actually the first paragraph is possibly as important as the first line. If your first line is short and snappy but your first paragraph doesn't back it up, you still might lose me as a reader.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett
"Mae Mobley was born on a early Sunday morning in August, 1960. A church baby we like to call it. Taking care a white babies, that's what I do, along with all the cooking and the cleaning. I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime. I know how to get them babies to sleep, stop crying, and go in the toilet bowl before they mamas even get out a bed in the morning."

The last quote is simple but it intrigued me. I wanted to know that 'harami' means so it made me read on.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
"Mariam was five years old the first time she heard the word harami."

After looking at actual books I did what I always do. I googled 'first lines in novels'. I uncovered articles devoted to discussing first lines and also lists of the 100 best first lines from novels.

This is a link to one of the lists of 100 best first lines from novels.
Some of the decisions I agree with, some first lines I don't rate that much but maybe if I could read the first paragraph I would.

I like this quote from one of the articles.
"Introducing a story to a reader is a lot like dropping a pickup line on someone: do it the wrong way and they’ll wind up under the covers with a different… book."

After spending some time thinking about my first line I know that even though the first line is important, I need to back it up with a strong first paragraph. I am sure a first line will come to me in my editing stage (or maybe before) and I look forward to having a eureka moment at some point, hopefully in the near future!

This link offers another list of the 100 best opening lines and has nice pictures of book covers that you move your mouse over to see the first line.
Above the list it mentions that it is often said that the first line often sells the book, the last line often sells the authors next book. Just something to mull over....


  1. When I go to a bookstore, I always go straight to the middle. If it's interesting, I want to know what happened before and after :) I like good titles and covers too...guilty!

  2. Ahh, you've got Watermelons. That is one hell of a good book - I love Marian Keyes!
    I totally know that feeling about first lines - maybe that's why I can't edit Italian Infatuation - I don't know how to start it so it sucks readers in. I'm sure I'll get there. And titles!!! 'Holiday,' even as a working title is RUBBISH! I've tried brainstorming and everything, but can't find anything better.
    I do love the title Italian Infatuation though, and I've got another novel (the one my other half wants me to write for NaNo) with a BRILLIANT title, but not enough of a story line! Ha ha! Good luck with the double writing today, and happy 60th to your dad!

  3. Claudia - looking at the middle is a good idea! I will try that one!

    newtowritinggirl - I love Watermelon and everything Marian Keyes has written! I like Italian Infatuation as a title..I have NO clue about my WIP's title. It doesn't even have a working title!

  4. Great post, although I must admit I never go to the first page. If anything, I go to the last. Don't know what that says about me.

    I read somewhere that people give up on a book if they aren't captured in 30 pages. I rarely if ever give up on a book (I've laid down 3 total in my life). I can usually find something redeeming in anything, even ones I don't like. I can't imagine making a decision that quickly. But that could explain the 50 some odd books waiting to be read next to my bed these days.

    You really made me think. Loved it!

  5. Thank you Tia, your comment gave me a lovely warm fuzzy feeling inside! I am not sure I have ever not finished a book once I have started it, just sometimes I don't bother starting!

    I really enjoyed writing this post even if it has made me so aware of how important EVERY aspect of a book is.

    Thank you for stopping by and commenting!

  6. The only first line that I know by heart is the one from Pride and Prejudice, and it is still a favorite of mine. You are right, however -- the opening of a book is so important, and helps to reel a reader in. There's a great blog post I ran across about how writing an opening "hook" is like running a "good con." It's hilarious, and I think it's right on point: