How important are a book’s first lines?
Watch what book buyers do when they pull books out at Barnes and Noble. They most often glance at the front cover, read the blurb on the back or inside flap, and then skim the first page. In Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me, a character says she judges a book not by its first lines by its single first line, and the central character then quotes the first line of A Wrinkle in Time, which is, as many of you know, “It was a dark and stormy night.” I don’t believe every book needs a single killer first line. However, it’s worth a writer’s time to edit a first line and the whole first paragraph.
Here are some first lines from books pulled randomly off my shelves.
“They took me in my nightgown.” (From Ruta Sepetys’s Between Shades of Gray)
Now that is a memorable first line, and I admit it’s one of the reasons I bought the book. Who took her? Where? This doesn’t sound good. As it happens, this is a YA story about the Soviets deporting Lithuanians to Siberia during World War II.
(Just as an aside about this book, it came out in March 2011, two months before Fifty Shades of Gray was published. I’ve heard Sepetys talk about how she occasionally goes to give a reading and finds people in attendance expecting a very different kind of book.)
While I like this first line, I think it verges on trying too hard. It might feel like the writer jumping up and down saying, “Look! Read this.” I think the line escapes that because the rest of the book is so strong, so the line comes to feel appropriate.
“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.” (From Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games)
That’s a less startling line than Sepetys’s, but for most readers, it accomplishes a first line’s basic job, which is making the reader want to read the second one. We want to know who’s missing from that chilly bed. Here’s the rest of the book’s first paragraph: “My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.”
If we had any illusions that mention of a bed means the book is about romance and sex, that paragraph destroys them. It sets up the whole book in a remarkably concise way. The Hunger Games is about the reaping and the danger and combat that entails, but it’s centrally about love, and especially about Katniss’s love for her sister.
“We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them.” (From George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones)
The woods are growing dark? Gared is afraid? That sounds dangerous. Let’s see where we’re going. There’s only one more line in that paragraph: “The wildlings are dead.” All right, I’m convinced. The characters should get out of there. Also, they should tell me what a wildling is.
What do good first lines do?
Looking at these lines, it seems to me they all do a couple of things. First, they raise a question the reader wants to answer. Second, they suggest that trouble is afoot. We aren’t languishing in a lush landscape description here. We’re seeing characters who are already acting in a problematic situation.
Do you notice first lines? I never used to. I think I assumed they were always some sort of authorial throat clearing, like “The sun was setting over the fields.” I was wrong.
Do you have first lines or paragraphs you remember? How much do they matter to you?