TO THE BEST OF my understandably shaky recollection, the first time I died it went something like this. – James Patterson, Private
By Scott Lorenz
Did you spend enough time crafting the first line in your book? In our attention deficit world these days it’s more important now than ever to grab the reader’s attention immediately. Why? Because if they don’t like the first line, they may never read any further and may not buy the book!
We all know when we’ve read a good first line as it grabs you by the lapels and never lets you go. We’ve all heard memorable first lines our entire lives from bedtime stories our parents read us to the books published this year.
So, what about your first line? Is it memorable? Does it contain words with long lasting meaning and value? Some unforgettable first line examples include:
- TO THE BEST OF my understandably shaky recollection, the first time I died it went something like this. – James Patterson, Private
- Twas the Night before Christmas and all through the house not a creature was stirring not even a mouse. – Clement Clarke Moore, A Visit from St. Nicholas
- When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. – Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird
- Call me Ishmael, – Herman Melville, Moby Dick
- It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. – George Orwell, 1984
- It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. – Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
- Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. – Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
- Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. – Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind
- If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. – J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
Now that you’ve read some notable opening lines, let’s hear what authors had to say about their process of creating a remarkable first line.
From an article in The Atlantic, Stephen King said, “An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say, Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”
Simon Kernick, a novelist, told The Telegraph during an interview, “For me, the most important bit is that you grip your reader from the start. All good writers really need to think about the first line, it’s hugely important. If you spend too much time setting things up, these days it’s not going to work.”
Kathryn Guare, self-publishing author, shared her insight and said, “The first sentence of a novel is exactly that—nothing more, and nothing less. It is the building block and the foundation from which to build everything else. It needs to work, but it does not need to be a work of art onto itself. If you like it yourself, then stop obsessing over it.”
The opening line holds crucial importance for both the author and the reader. It is of the utmost importance to hook the reader with the very first sentence and engage them to read the whole book. A few ways to do so include:
- Painting a vivid picture – Gain your reader’s attention by painting an image that stays with them for the rest of the book. For example, an article on The Write Practice shared an excerpt from Cormac McCarthy’s, All the Pretty Horses, which uses this technique.
The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door.
- Capturing the reader’s interest with a scenario or question – rather than painting a picture for your readers capture a scenario or recollection of thought from your main character. As a reader, you might picture the character with his father in deep conversation or envision the father sitting his son down to share valuable life lessons. If you’re imagining a similar scene, the author has done their job correctly. For example, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, The Great Gatsby.
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
- Surprising the reader – this technique is used often by many authors to deceive their readers. Many authors use short and choppy sentences to confuse their readers and to keep them intrigued. A surprising opening is a theatrical way to present your book’s story into reality. For example, an article by Diane O’Connell, a book publishing coach and CEO of Write To Sell Your Book, shared an excerpt from Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road, which uses this technique.
It was the day my grandmother exploded.
Writing words that are funny, truthful and concise – the best technique that an author can use is honesty. A good example of honesty is the opening line of Lemony Snicket’s, A Bad Beginning, and A Series of Unfortunate Events. Snicket (pen name for American author Daniel Handler is open and upfront with his readers from the very beginning by telling them that this isn’t a fairytale story. By using the honesty technique, he let his readers know what they were in for.
If you enjoy books with happy endings than you are better off reading some other book.
The Bottom Line: Grab your reader from the very beginning with an engaging and memorable opening line!
About Book Publicist Scott Lorenz
Book publicist Scott Lorenz is President of Westwind Communications, a public relations and marketing firm that has a special knack for working with authors to help them get all the publicity they deserve and more. Lorenz works with bestselling authors and self-published authors promoting all types of books, whether it’s their first book or their 15th book. He’s handled publicity for books by CEOs, CIA Officers, Navy SEALS, Homemakers, Fitness Gurus, Doctors, Lawyers and Adventurers. His clients have been featured by Good Morning America, FOX & Friends, CNN, ABC News, New York Times, Nightline, TIME, PBS, LA Times, USA Today, Washington Post, Woman’s World, & Howard Stern to name a few.
Learn more about Westwind Communications’ book marketing approach at https://www.WestwindBookMarketing.com or contact Lorenz at [email protected] or 734-667-2090 or fill out the form below. Follow Lorenz on Twitter @aBookPublicist. Want help titling a book? Check out Scott Lorenz’s new award winning, bestselling book: Book Title Generator- A Proven System in Naming Your Book www.BookTitleGenerator.net.
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Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
Check out this great post from The Book Publicist blog on the topic of grabbing the reader with your first line.
Thanks for the repost. Glad you found the article useful. Take care.
Definitely. You’re welcome.
Great article, very helpful tips!
I’ve read, and written, too many books and short stories without paying real close attention to the first line. Maybe the first paragraph, but not the first line. But you’re right. You should always think about it, because first impressions mean a lot, and busy or distracted readers will lose interest quick.
This so true, especially in this instant world where people want things immediately. Many people will pick up a book by a catchy title or front cover, but will they go further? Well that very much depends on the first line, and then the first chapter. The importance of grabbing reader’s attention can’t be overemphasized, thank you for such excellent tips.