When you first crack open a book, be it one you anticipated before getting a hold of it, or whether you are browsing a bookstore and curious about the tone of the book, the first line of the book is your first impression of the writing in the book. I was thinking about this as I was thinking about next week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic (Best Book Beginnings/Endings) and when I read this article about Stephen King and his opening sentences. I know the first line isn’t everything, but it helps set the stage for the rest of the book. One of the examples given in the article I found really interesting…
They threw me off the hay truck about noon.
This is from James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, which I have never read, but I find that opening line fascinating. Sounds like this character is a drifter of sorts, since he’s hitching a ride on a hay truck. But what led him there? Why did he get kicked off? Already I have questions! And that’s a good thing! Here is another beginning that certainly catches your attention with the first several lines:
First the colors. Then the humans. That’s usually how I see things. Or at least, how I try.
*** HERE IS A SMALL FACT***
You are going to die.
This is the beginning of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. You don’t know yet that the narrator is Death, but he has certainly caught your attention, you know he’s not human, and the stage is set for the tone and style that will carry on throughout the novel. And then one more I wanted to share, from The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, which I have not read yet but is on the top of my TBR pile:
It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.
This too begs a question: why will someone die because it’s November 1? What happens on November 1? And of course, we also have the time of year, which is nice. I think that generally, it’s important to establish a character and a setting within the first paragraph.
As someone who does write, I do find beginnings hard sometimes, or at least a good, powerful beginning. I feel like I have improved since I’ve learned to eliminate all fluff in writing and get right to the action, the good stuff. If you ever read anything I write, chances are you won’t be waiting for something to happen in the character’s life; it will be happening quite quickly. It might not be the most earth-shattering thing ever, but it’s something important to the character. I have found that I have a low tolerance in both reading slow beginnings and writing them.
If I get bored writing a sentence, a paragraph, or a scene, I know it must be boring for the reader too. I believe that everything written should be something that either advances the plot/story forward, or that advances the character’s personal growth/character arc. That’s why it’s important to not just begin strong, but to have a strong middle and end as well. And it’s hard! But it’s important. And I think the first impression of a book says a lot to a reader who is just getting started on the adventure the writer has crafted.
What do you think? Does a book’s beginning make a difference to you? What kind of opening line grabs your attention?
I always pay special attention to first lines, they set the tone for the whole book. If I’m in a book shop browsing the first line can make or break the sale for me. I loved the Scorpio Races and I think that first line hooked me right in from the very start.
I want something to grab my attention and make me want to read more, so intrigue and lines that create questions work great for me.
I agree; and thanks for retweeting about this post!
I attended a conference once where a presenter described a first line as a first kiss. It should build anticipation and leave the reader wanting more!
That’s a good analogy!
The only difference that it makes is that it pulls me in, like a hook. Other than that, barely anything else. I don’t really DNF books unless their grammar is simply terrible that I just have to stop putting myself to reading all that abuse of words and sentences.
So yeah, I’m going to keep going with a book regardless of the opening line or not.
As for the Book Thief opening line, though, it got me really excited. I knew that it was going to be in Death’s POV, but wow. It was like a sucker punch;
Yes, it’s definitely a hook and not what carries the entire book. In fact, I actually really liked the opening line of Under the Never Sky, but the interest did not continue for me so I chose to DNF the book.
*My novel I am writing has a few paragraphs of prologue discussing birth in the beginning of it. I’ve been getting mixed feedback on whether it should be kept in or not.*
I feel it is a very impactful opening and the opening line itself is a powerful concept. I’ve heard it set the stage well from some readers. On the other side I have heard it takes away from the beginning of the story as it is not directly related. People already know what childbirth is.
I am of the mindset of removing it and weaving a few important lines into the later scene of actual childbirth where they could fit as well.
How important are first lines to you? Does a good first line prompt a more intent reading of the first chapter of a book for you? Is the first scene more important than the first line. It’s not like people aren’t going to read the second line, right?
The first line is definitely not a be all end all for me. There are books I have read and enjoyed that did not grab me right from the first line, but somewhere in the first few paragraphs I think there is generally something that keeps me reading. I just love the idea of a first line that gets you right away.
As far your novel goes, you might want to finish it first before you really decide what to do with your first paragraph. Or maybe you can make it into a prologue? It’s hard for me to say without context, and I am certainly not an expert on writing. I wish you luck in figuring it out though!
I do think a book’s beginning is important. I want to get sucked in right away and have those questions! But, I don’t really think about it prior to reading. I know there are some people who will open a book before buying it and read the first line/page/chapter to decide if they really want to read it. I don’t do that. I think it’s probably smart but I’m usually too busy oogling the cover to think that far ahead 😛 I love what you said though about writing and reading though. I think that makes sense that if you’re bored writing it, we’ll be bored reading it. Great post!
Ha ha, I realized after I called the first line the first impression that it’s probably actually the cover that is the first impression, but as far as once you open the book and start reading. It’s like seeing someone vs. starting a conversation with them and getting a more true impression of them.
I so love that you included the opening from The Book Thief. I recognized it immediately, and I’m pretty sure hearts started bubbling above my head. <3
My sister is a writer and I know she can relate to that meme up there, about the trouble with beginnings. I feel like she's been rewriting the beginning of this one particular story for like a year now (and it's stalling her progress on the rest of the book!). I think this is why so many authors tend to recommend just skipping the beginning if you can't get it down quickly, and then returning to it later.
It’s hard to keep going forward when you don’t have a solid beginning, but I have heard numerous times that you are supposed to get your story down and get all the ideas out there first, and then shape it up after the fact. Easier said than done, though!
I love that you were seeing hearts. 🙂
As a person who’s always found it hard to get into a book right away (unless I’ve been waiting months for it), the first line (or the first page, at least) has to grab me. I’m not interested in reading about someone waking up and brushing their teeth and having breakfast. I like books that start interesting, like Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races (which I have yet to read, but I’m excited about it). I’m usually intrigued by mysterious/creepy beginnings. (Shadowlands‘s beginning is a good example)
I just hate wasting time. Who cares about brushing their teeth?! Get on with the good stuff! 🙂
I agree the first lines/paragraph definitely set the tone for a book, but I find my impression often changes after I read a bit more into it. That actually happens to me quite a bit, and has for the past few books I’ve read. The intro will seem boring, or jarring, and then a few more paragraphs in I get used to whatever style it is and begin to like it more than I initially thought I would.
It always seems to me that beginnings are the hardest thing to write… moreso than a proper ending, even. There is so much expectation hanging on those few words that it can be crushing to get it out right. I’ve been let down by some books’ beginnings, and captivated by others’. I try to not let that form much of an opinion for me, though, because I know that part of the book just isn’t the easiest for certain writers to create.
I agree that my opinion often times changes after reading more than the first paragraph! Sometimes the beginning and the rest of the book feel more disconnected than they ought to. I think the key is while creating a powerful opener, it’s important to keep it strong throughout too!
Haha love this discussion! I’ve admittedly found it really difficult to understand the very beginning of a book, especially prologues, which tend to confuse me out of reading the book completely. More often than not though, I’ve found all of the the questions I’ve been asking from the start answered as the plot progresses, and I guess that’s something I’m grateful for 😀 Unlike you, I’m a horrible writer, though I think its true that if you feel like your own beginning paragraph is weak, then it probably won’t catch much attention (unless your standards are imperviously high). But yes– content is key, and the opening to the book is part of that! I’d like for a book to just suck me into it’s story from inception.
I doubt you’re a horrible writer! At the very least you’re not a horrible blogger, and if you can write well on your blog you can probably write well elsewhere, it just takes lots of practice.
Great post! I’m one of those people who stare at the first paragraph of a novel in order to get a feel for what’s to come. Good beginnings are a requirement for me, as I believe that making the reader ask questions even though they are only a couple pages in means that an author must be pretty promising 🙂
Oh, and I love that you used the beginning of The Book Thief– Death is awesome.
I just hate when a book starts slow… usually the only reason I keep going at that point is is I heard it was awesome. I just want it to start awesome too!
I’m actually pretty okay with slow books. But if the book is needlessly dragging on, then I will think of it as a problem… I do keep going, though, just to see what all the bally hoo is about (like you) 😛
I’m not sure about first line (though yes, they start the boulder rolling) but the whole first paragraph/chapter is most important for me since it’s where I get my first impression of the book so it’ll tune my mindset as to whether I’m going to expect more or curb my hopes. Personally, I enjoy dramatic, descriptive or quiet-with-a-huge-smack-in-your-face-at-the-end-of-the-chapter openings. 😛 I’m not very picky to be honest. XD
I pretty much agree that the first paragraph/chapter matter more than just the first line when it comes to impact, but I do love a great first line. It makes me feel like the author cared about drawing me in rather than just expecting me to read further just because.