The following are first lines – from some of my most loved novels:
Call me Ishmael.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.
All day, the colours had been that of dusk, mist moving like a water creature across the great flanks of mountains possessed of ocean shadows and depths.
“Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes.”
Can you recognize any of the above? (Don’t you go and Google them … I’ll put up the answers at the end of the post).
Are first lines that important? I usually read at least half a novel before developing an opinion about it (a possible exception is online fiction, or something that I know is from the slush pile) – and even then I don’t judge something by its first line alone. I read at least two pages of rubbish before I decide to call it rubbish.
But I’m not spokesperson for the world at large. Nor are novels what we usually read online.
So should you give thought to the first line in your writing?
The answer? It depends on the medium. Novels can get by with absolutely pathetic first lines, though writing overall still has to be good, vigorous and well structured. You wouldn’t have thought that To Kill A Mockingbird – one of the greatest novels ever written – started with an extremely unimpressive first line now, would you?
Once we take it online, however, the first lines of posts, episodes and chapters become absolutely vital. Which of the following would you rather continue reading?
I’m so tired to blog today because a lot of bad things happened to me while I was coming back from school and it was so horrible to be stuck between this woman that stunk like a fish market and a man who looked like he came straight out of The Departed – it nearly made me puke after the heavy meal Kristin made me eat during lunch break as well as the breakfast Mum forced down my throat.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
Alright, so the second example was borrowed off Dickens. He wrote sharp and beautifully, and that first line from A Tale Of Two Cities still sticks with me today. Unfortunately for me, he peppered the rest of the first paragraph with variations of the first line, making me rush through to get to the meat of the story as soon as possible.
The first line in online writing should be concise, to the point, and attractive enough to draw the reader in. You’re not going to get anywhere with:
Hello, my name’s Kevin – but that’s not important.
So what should you aim for in your first line?
1. Sentence level elegance. Your first line doesn’t necessarily have to be short. Properly structured long sentences still work the same wonder if done correctly. For this I refer you to a very enlightening article over at Poynter Online. Read it here.
2. A hint of what lies beyond. Can this be accomplished in a sentence? Not impossible, but you’d need the skills of a good wordsmith to make every letter count. Rather, aim to set the tone for your introduction – and the chapter beyond it – with your first sentence. The second and third are equally important to draw the reader in, though it probably won’t end up in the sacred halls of first (one?) liners that sticks to the mind.
3. Relevancy. Since the first line sets the tone for the introduction as well as the chapter – make sure to revise, revise and revise again. Sometimes the first line is forgotten as the main meat of the article/post/chapter is rewritten – and thus the introduction feels off tangent with what you’re trying to say. The internet is the domain of unforgiving eyes – if your direction, tone or story is not apparent within the first few lines interest would be extremely hard to generate. And thus your reader goes off to check his email, his friend’s blog, or some distraction the internet is all too happy to provide.
4. The Set Up. I don’t like novels to throw me into the chaos of a world I haven’t even begun to understand. I didn’t particularly like the way To Kill A Mockingbird started, but Harper Lee cushioned the abruptness of the first line with a few pages of backstory. Here’s a good example of The Set Up in a first line:
The dark man fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
From Gunslinger, Stephen King.
Ample opportunity for the author to explain – who is the dark man? Who is the gunslinger? Why the desert? Why is one following the other?
5. The Hook. This one doesn’t set up the story, nor does it offer a glimpse of what lies beyond. It just hooks you, pulls you in. Makes you want to know more. One example:
Today my Grandmother exploded …
From Ian Bank’s Crow Road
Does it set up the story? Possibly. Is it elegant? Quite. Does it give a hint of what lies beyond? Absolutely not.
What it does remarkably well is to make you want to read more. I do, and am currently reading up on the book at Amazon. Powerful stuff, this first sentence.
*Note: As promised, here are the books from which the first lines at the introduction of this post were taken:
‘Call Me Ishmael’ – Moby-Dick, and is one of the most famous in American Literature.
‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.’ – Cheeky set up, this one: Pride and Prejudice.
‘When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.’ – An abrupt start to an amazing novel: To Kill A Mockingbird.
‘All day, the colours had been that of dusk, mist moving like a water creature across the great flanks of mountains possessed of ocean shadows and depths.’ – Man Booker Prize Winner of 2006 – Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance Of Loss.
‘”Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes.”‘ – The beginning of a masterpiece: Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
It must be noted that this post was inspired by a 9rules note. A big thanks to them for making me read up the first lines of my favourite novels.