What draws you into a book and makes you want to read beyond the first page? Then what makes you keep on reading? Have you ever been up half the night because you couldn’t put the book down? Next week, I’ll write about cliffhangers…
The first line of a book (or at least the first paragraph) should raise a question in the reader’s mind. The more powerful and intriguing the question, the greater the likelihood they will keep reading.
The article https://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/2020/september/best-first-lines-in-books.html contains a number of great first lines. I’ve picked out a couple of my favourites:
‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen’
1984 by George Orwell (1949)
Why would clocks strike thirteen? The reader is immediately alerted to the idea that strange things are happening, and is highly likely to want to read more. If the reader has also read the blurb on the back cover (or these days, on the online sales site) the first line adds to the sense of fear. The number thirteen has always had sinister connotations.
‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)
Who is the rich single man? Who will he choose as his wife? It’s obviously a totally different type of book to 1984, but even when it was first released, the first line told us something about the social setting, and hinted at an interesting story with a potential for conflict.
These two hooks have the effect of enticing the reader. Each is aimed at its own readership (although both books are great enough to have drawn in readers with more diverse interests than dictated solely by genre).
As writers, not everyone can expect to start a book with the brilliance of George Orwell or Jane Austen. But we can take a few tips inspired by their own first lines:
- Raise a question that will be answered later in the book (If you answer the question on the second page, the reader might not make it to the next chapter.)
- Be consistent with the rest of the book in terms of style, voice and point of view.
- Write and rewrite, and rewrite some more. After your first drafts, and edits and further drafts, go back to your first line, and polish it until it’s the best it can be.
- Be original. Your first line should be YOUR first line.
- As with all your writing, share it with trusted critique partners/writing friends. Ask for feedback. Read your own work as critically as possible. Ask yourself ‘Would I want to read the rest of this book based on the first line?’
- When writing your first draft, don’t stress about the first line too much – it’s a recipe for writer’s block! Get something on the paper/screen, and come back to it later when you do the rewrites and you know the whole story.
- Check out the first lines in your favourite books. Think about why they work.
As always, comments are welcome. What are your favourite opening lines?