How Important Is A Great First Line?

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There are all sorts of theories and ideas about what constitutes a good opening line. It’s tricky thing, and tough to talk about. To get scientific about it is a little like trying to catch starlight in a fishing net.

A first line is designed to do a of things.  Create an effective setting,  establish the voice and also draw the reader in. They say you can’t live on love, and you can’t create a writing career based on first lines. A book won’t stand or fall on the very first line of prose — the story has got to be there.

Although an excellent first line can do so much to establish that crucial sense of voice — it’s the first thing that acquaints you, that makes you eager, that starts to enlist you for the long haul.

We may have the essence of what we wish to portray written down, but the format can hamper it’s impact.

An example below is from Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis.

“Gregor Samsa woke up one morning and was a cockroach.”

Let’s face it, this attempt at an opening line is amateurish especially compared to..

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.'”

There is a world of difference between the two, the first lacks rhythm and sounds awkward on the tongue. Especially if you read it out loud. It lacks detail and sounds funny. The second provides just enough detail and it draws you in, leaving you asking a dozen questions. Kafka was an artist and he backed up a powerful first sentence with strong second and third sentences to compell the reader. But he was acutely aware that the first line is what entices a reader to either devour a piece of writing or walk away from it.

You have exactly one line with which to draw your reader into the world you’ve created , cue the old adage about creating a first impression.

The best first line I ever read is the opening of ‘Needful Things.’  By Stephen King. Printed by itself on a page in 20-point type:

“You’ve been here before.”

All there by itself on one page, inviting the reader to keep reading. Stephen is the ‘King’ , (excuse the pun) of opening lines and the man churns them out like a machine. The opening line of 11/22/63 is

“I’ve never been what you’d call a crying man.”

The opening line of Salem’s Lot is

“Everybody thought the man and the boy were father and son.”

See? They resonate! The opening line of It is

“The terror that would not end for another 28 years, if it ever did, began so far as I can know or tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.”

Horror isn’t even a genre that I enjoy,  being the biggest scaredy cat in the world. It is one that I have experimented with however,  as I understand the need to keep the reader on tenderhooks. Nonetheless all of these lines have carried with me, long after the books have been placed back on the shelf.

This is a short blog, hopefully you will engage with it and comment with your own favourite opening lines.

There’s incredible power in it, when you say, come in here. You want to know about this. And someone begins to listen. It’s about inviting them in and hooking them. It’s about setting the stage and opening your world for others to explore.

Neil Sehmbhy is the author of the forthcoming Corporation and Sunder series of epic fantasy novels.

Follow him on twitter @NeilSehmbhy

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2 responses to “How Important Is A Great First Line?

  1. I was pleased to see the visual example you gave, especially as I used that very line as the title of a blog post about my… Wait for it… Big Brother. The first line of my new book is ‘She looked expectantly out of the window at the sparse grey clouds flicking by just below them’ – Still not 100% sure about it

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