Monday, 14 November 2016

It was a dark and stormy night ... How important are first lines?

Many writers turn themselves in knots about this one. The golden rule of writing dictates the first line must grab the reader. This seems like common sense, but it also sounds like a bucketful of pressure! Really? A book MUST hook readers with the first line?

Must a book grab you from the very first line?
"...no writerly preoccupation is more universally shared – or has been the cause of more agonized hours staring at the blank page – than the First Line." (Andrew Pyper, author)
When you've been a writer for any length of time you eventually come face to face with a list of unwritten rules about the sacred first line...

Do not start with a mirror.

Do not start with the weather.

Do not start with an alarm clock

Do not start with a dream

Do not start with dialogue

Do not start with a cliché

Do not start with heavy-handed/obvious foreshadowing

Do start with action

Do start with conflict

Make it a summary of the novel in its entirety

Make it a universal truth

Hook the reader!

Hook the reader!

Hook the reader!

While these rules might make sense, it's not so easy to undertake such a goal to hook the reader in one line. Seriously, you should try it. It's like trying to catch a fish – yeah, they got it right with that 'hook' analogy.

Perhaps we're too precious about first lines
Turns out, many readers don't really give that first line a lot of attention, anyway. It's the first paragraph, the first page, the first chapter that sucks readers in at the bookstore, or while shopping online.

As a reader, I pay very little attention to the first line. I generally remember the opening scene of a novel I enjoy, which means it's done its job of getting me hooked – rarely will I remember the first line. Having said that, the other week I sat down to read a book that had been on my tbr list for quite a while and I was so impressed with the first line I had to stop to read it to my husband.
"Miles Chadwick sat in a corner booth of Keens Steakhouse on West 36th Street in Manhattan, waiting for the apocalypse to begin." (The Immune, David Kazzie)
Pretty good, huh? The first line certainly did its job with that book – I was hooked. Importantly, the rest of the story didn't disappoint. If it had, I'd have forgotten its first line, anyway.

Here's some famous first lines from fantasy novels:

"We should start back," Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them. "The wildlings are dead." (A Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin) 
Prince Raoden of Arelon awoke early in the morning, completely unaware that he had been damned for all eternity. (Elantris, Brandon Sanderson) 
The Sunrise was the color of bad blood. (Best Served Cold, Joe Abercrombie) 
From the twisting, smoke filled clouds, blood rained down. (Midnight Tides, Steven Erikson) 
The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed. (The Gunslinger, Stephen King)

Not to be ignored (well, it's my blog) here's one of mine:

The traitor waited at the meeting place atop the mountain. (The Borderlands: Journey, Aderyn Wood)

Is a first line important to you? Or do you generally forget them like I do? Do you have a favourite first line?



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