The Famous First Line

by Gina Burgess
Google tells me that I have to have what the post is about in the first line. It is about first lines and how crucial are they? Kinda boring first line isn’t it?
I had the misfortune of getting sick over Thanksgiving. It was the first Thanksgiving that I’ve ever spent alone, and I’ll tell you it was fine with me. I stayed in my warm PJs wrapped in a soft, warm blanket, and watched movies all day. I started feeling better somewhere around 3 am on Saturday morning. Ergo — I’ve almost never used that word, but it is really a fun word, isn’t it? Ergo, I need help with this week’s newsletter and blog post.
The post is just basically a few questions and an example:
  • Is the first line absolutely crucial to grab a reader’s interest?
  • First paragraph? First page?
  • Where is the line between grabbing readers’ attention and boring them?
  • What is your favorite story first line?
  • Why has it stuck with you as your favorite?
I like a lot of different genres, always have. When I was a pre-teen and teen, suspense became my all-time favorite until they started publishing Star Trek books. However, the earliest first line I remember was from Alistair MacLean’s book, When Eight Bells Toll. It went, as I remember it, something like: “I stood absolutely motionless, not breathing, for the Peacemaker Colt was pointed right at my thigh.”
While hunting this down so I could quote it correctly and directly, I discovered that this is not the first line of the first paragraph, but the last line of the second paragraph. How could I have thought all these years (nope I’m not telling how many, but I will say it has been decades!) that it was the first line?
Most likely because it was so arresting. The first paragraph is all about the Peacemaker Colt and the soft-nosed lead bullet from the Colt would tear muscle and bone to shreds to the point that, if you survived the torn arteries and shock, the doctor would have to cut your leg off if that bullet were to strike your thigh.
However, the bulk of this post, hopefully, will be your answers to the questions above. Mainly, how important are first lines to you as interest creating enough to keep reading? How far will you go into a book before you decide it’s boring?
Dig down now and help us all understand this vital “rule” of writing. You may be helping to create the next Stephen King or Danielle Steel.

13 thoughts on “The Famous First Line”

  1. Is the first line absolutely crucial to grab a reader’s interest? – Every reader is different. I personally don’t mind if the first line is the most boring sentence in the entire world.

    First paragraph? First page? How about the first chapter or the introduction? I try to withhold my judgment of the book’s progression until I finish the introduction and/or first chapter. If I am not interested by then, I might try to read through the third chapter before making a decision to read on or not. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” is not a page turner. It is just good descriptive writing. Old works are not captivating, at least not what I have read, they just really nail the dialogue and details. It is a story. Sometimes stories are dry but they are still conveying key descriptions.

    Where is the line between grabbing readers’ attention and boring them? I would not focus on grabbing the reader’s attention, but making sure that you are telling your story in a way that makes sense. I am currently working on my first stand-up comedy routine for a Dec 21 event. How I tell the story is extremely important but the content I am covering can be said multiple ways. Know your audience maybe? How would you want the story to be told to you?

    What is your favorite story first line? I can’t remember the opening to anything that I have read ever. There are two that stick in my head “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” and then the introduction to what a hobbit is in Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”. Those two stand out but I don’t really have a favorite. Am I supposed to remember the opening sentences? I didn’t know that until reading this post! What are some others? “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….”; maybe the intro to Moby Dick? I remember the description about the allure of water to mankind in Moby Dick. That was awesome. It reminded me of a Bob Ross painting.

    Keith

    1. Wow, Keith, what a thoughtful reply. I agree that the first line are not very memorable. Those you mentioned are awesome. Congratulation of your stand-up comedy gig. I hear Red Skelton say that when you get a laugh with a joke, tell it exactly the same way every time. I tested that, and he’s right!! How you tell the story means everything… even mundane stories can be told in an interesting way.

      There is a movie (can’t remember the name) with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward that is the most boring story. However, it is told in such a fascinating way it held my daughter and me captive for 2 hours 15 minutes. When it was over we had no idea why we were so interested in the story. Later I realized it was HOW it was told, not what it entailed. Great point!!

  2. Gina, I wrestle with the question of the first line all the time. I don’t think the first line is crucial, but somewhere near the beginning, say, the first paragraph, I want to see something that compels me to read further. Now I am speaking of the short story here. A also think you need to grab the reader’s attention (particularly if you’ve entered a contest). I have begun to list what I think are great first lines, ones that I’ve heard in informal conversations unrelated to writing, lines that need only be clothed in a story. I read many shorts stories and continually underline first lines that impress. That way I can go back for quick inspiration.

    First lines ARE memorable. Who would forget this one from the novel ‘A Hundred Years of Solitude’ by Gabriel Marquez: ‘Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.’

    1. That is certainly an arresting first line 😉

      I agree that first lines don’t have to be so grab-you-by-the-throat that you have to keep reading. Frankly, the fact that a person has picked up the book to check it out is a really good sign they are willing to give it a chance. I just don’t know how long that chance is. Probably different for different readers.

    2. That first line you quoted is like, “why is he in front of the firing line, why is the ice moment so memorable at this moment in time, and how in the world are the two related?” I guess that would be enough to keep me reading. Ha!

  3. While the first line may not be that important, the first page is. I have to find something that urges me to turn the page. If the first page shows promise, and the second page, I will give it up to five pages to convince me the book is worthy to spend my time on.

    1. That is very true, Ron. First page and second page are important. For that matter, all the remaining pages are crucial because if we don’t entice a reader to keep turning the pages then they won’t keep buying our books, correct?

      Sid Feldman wrote an excellent book on writing scripts for motion pictures. He said one thing in there that has stuck with me for years. “Most people give a movie 5 minutes. If they aren’t hooked in 5 minutes they’ll change the channel or quit watching.” In scripts, so my daughter tells me, a page is about 1 minute of film. Five minutes is like 5 pages. If a reader isn’t hooked within the first 5 pages, then most likely that book won’t be read–using the reasoning of Sid.

      What made Sid’s observation so crucial was what he said after that. You’ve got to keep raising questions and answering those questions as the movie moves along. Raise a question, and the answer raises another question and you’ve got your viewer/reader hooked until the end. And by the way, always give your viewer/reader a satisfying answer at the end.

  4. Before I buy a book I always go to Amazon and read “Look Inside.” I can read the info and the first chapters. Then I think of my own books and wonder how often a person would buy one of my books because of what they can read in “Look Inside.” Are my first chapters enticing? Do I have to write with this Amazon feature in mind? Am I wrong to have a background story to make the reader (later) understand why and what was going on, how my characters are relating to each other, how an action or reaction occurs? Often I think the reader doesn’t get to the meat of the book if he/she can only read to “This is the end of…buy the book with one click.”

    1. Giselle, I hadn’t thought of that. But then after thinking about it a bit, I see how keeping the “look inside” feature would help us to write concisely, on topic, and enticingly. I can tell you that I am not a fan of flashbacks but I am a fan of enough backstory to understand character motivations. Some authors dribble that information into their story instead of throwing it all up on the page to stick wherever it lands. I like that. It sort of adds an element of tension and keeps the reader guessing. However, if the blurb, book cover, and first few pages don’t entice a reader–what actually does?

  5. This is an interesting topic, Gina. Thanks for sharing you favorite first line…or last line of a second paragraph. Either way, it was memorable to you after all this time. I think the opening page of any fiction is important in grabbing the reader but it also doesn’t have to be the most memorable part of a novel. Nothing worse than a book or short story that starts out fabulous but doesn’t deliver.

    Actually, I thought this topic from the title, was about blog writing and how google search engines like posts that have the title in the first paragraph. I guess I don’t get why we must repeat the title within the first paragraph (or the keywords). I suppose the idea of opening paragraphs being well written and enticing does also apply to our blogs. There we can practice!! 😉

    1. Great point, Lisa, I was thinking along those lines. Why must we, fore SEO’s sake, have boring first paragraphs because the title of the blog post must appear in not only the first paragraph but also in the later headings. Yoast gives me points off when at least one heading doesn’t have the title subject in it. ACK!

      Then I realized that the internet is like a huge library that doesn’t have the advantage of the Dewey Decimal System. The info has to be categorized some way and the only way is through repeated words (topics). And Heaven forbid if you use different forms of the words because those aren’t recognized. Double ACK!

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