Here’s something to ponder before reading the second paragraph. Think of first lines from five novels. The first five that pop into your head. What you come up should provide a clue as to how important a book’s first line is.
Mine are: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”; “Call me Ishmael”; “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”; “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills”; and “It was a dark and stormy night…”
The most recent was written by a Beagle and is from the mid-1960s.
The question is, did readers instantly memorise these first lines the first time they read the books or are they memorable only because they are from classic novels?
In the writing community, opinion is divided about the importance of a book’s first line. Some feel that first line should grab the reader’s attention, while others believe it isn’t a dealbreaker.
I fall into the latter camp. I don’t buy books because of a killer first line. And I don’t decide whether I’m hooked, or not, by a novel by the end of the first line.
My M.O. when it comes to buying books is a mix of a) I already know the book I want, or b) I browse bookshops looking for a book which piques my interest. In the case of the latter, I do scan the first few paragraphs to see if the writing style appeals. But I don’t pay particular attention to the first line.
From memory, think of the first lines from novels which captivated you most recently?
I can’t remember one.
Contemporary books and their first lines
Purely out of interest, here are the opening sentences of a selection of massively popular/successful novels from recent years. Some of these books wowed me, others not so much as they did other people.
“Marsh is not swamp.” – Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens
“Well, let’s start with Elizabeth, shall we?” – The Thursday Murder Club, Richard Osman
“When we were new, Rosa and I were mid-store, on the magazines table side, and could see through more than half of the window.” – Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro
“Nineteen years before she decided to die, Nora Seed sat in the warmth of the small library at Hazeldene School in the town of Bedford.” – The Midnight Library, Matt Haig
“At dusk they pour from the sky.” – All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr
Ironically, the most intriguing first line of that selection belongs to my least favourite book of the lot.
I’m willing to bet future readers won’t be quoting these first lines in fifty years’ time. So, no, I really don’t think it’s essential a book’s first line needs to hook the reader. But the paragraphs following it should … for me anyway.
The first line of my, Scottish novel is: “The boy centred the crosshairs on the robin’s plump little breast, slowly exhaled, and gently put pressure on the trigger, just like he’d been taught.”
I didn’t write it with the intention of it being an intriguing first line (I’m too close to it to tell if it is or isn’t), it was just the start of the story.
Incidentally, for anyone who doesn’t already know, the first lines mentioned at the start of these musings are from: Rebecca, Moby Dick, A Tale of Two Cities, Out of Africa, and an unpublished novel by Snoopy.