Famous First Lines

Image from Wikipedia

In the competitive marketplace of books, how does a writer hook a browsing reader deeply enough to entice him into the story world? How do you make a browser into a purchaser and ultimately a reader?

There are some basic features of a book that I’ll be covering over the next several posts to draw potential readers far enough into the story for them to decide if they like it enough to buy.

In the order that a browser discovers a new book, the tools I’m going to focus on over the next few posts are:

  1. Cover
  2. Title/Author’s Name
  3. Back of book blurb/positive review blurbs
  4. First Line

For some reason, I have decided to start with the last first.

First Lines.

What is so important about the first line? If the browser already likes the title, cover art, and story summary on the back, why then is the first sentence/paragraph of the story equally important?

It’s simple. The cover, title, and blurbs are not the story. They are the packaging, the wrapping, the dressing, or the window display. Those elements found outside the book, on the front and back covers, are marketing elements meant to attract the reader to the book from among all the other books for sale nearby, whether on a book shelf in a store, or in a list of thumbnails on a virtual shelf at an online retailer.

Consider the packaging elements your bait and the first line your hook.

The first line, however, is the absolute beginning of the story and the first written words by you–the author–that will plant the story question in the browser’s mind. A poor or forgettable first line may not allow the hook to set. The browser may simply move on to another book, the way a nibbling trout may decide the bait isn’t enticing enough to swallow.

A solid or even great first line, though, can set the hook deeply and instantly raise a compelling question in the browser’s mind that allows him to be reeled in. The browser become a reader and wants to find out what happens next.

That first line will be provocative, unique, and appropriate for the story theme and genre. For some examples from famous and/or classic novels, The American Book Review posted their list of top 100 first lines. You can read the list here.

Many of those story openings are still excellent, even by today’s popular reading tastes and standards.

So, how does a writer create that great first line that completes the four elements needed to hook a browser and turn them into a purchasing reader?

Let’s analyze my published story, “Time Soldier”, and see if I succeeded in opening with a compelling story question that entices a reader to continue. If you want to read this story, I’ve posted it here in an earlier blog. I must warn you, I wrote this a long time ago, so I’m hoping I’ve progressed a bit since then.

Here’s the opening sentence:

The man in the olive drab army jacket awoke in a daze.

If a browser saw this one single sentence, what story question is raised?

The first character introduced is usually an important one, often the protagonist. So the browser could assume they’ve now met a key character. What else is known? The man’s attire. An army jacket has a certain connotation that means either a current or former soldier, or someone who shops at an army surplus store. Since the title of this story is “Time Soldier”, the browser can safely assume they’ve now met the time soldier.

awoke in a daze.

This is where the first line gets a little more interesting. Why is the man dazed and where did he awake? What happened to him? Is he in the middle of a battle? Is it after a battle? Is he waking from a nightmare years after a war?

If the reader was already interested enough based on the title to begin reading the story, then this opening line may compound that interest so the browser will want to know what is happening to this man in the army jacket who just awoke in a daze.

Will the browser read on?

Here are the next two sentences:

He sat up and looked around suspiciously. He was in a small park near a line of rusted railroad tracks.

Okay, now we have the setting introduced to help orient the reader. If the reader was wondering where the man awakened, that question is quickly answered. But a new question is raised by the man’s reaction to the setting. He is “suspicious”. So, he either doesn’t know where he is or expected to be somewhere else. Being in a park isn’t unusual, but waking up in a park seems unusual for this man.

So why is he in the park? How did he get there? Why is he dazed? What has happened to him? Drugs? Hangover? Wound? A simple nap?

Again, the reader is already aware that the title character is a time soldier, so perhaps the man just traveled through time and that is why he’s dazed. That is possible, but the answer isn’t yet apparent. The browser will need to read on.

Here’s the rest of the opening paragraph:

A slight breeze barely moved his dusty, unkempt hair. He looked down at this chest and thoughtfully watched the flow of blood slow to a trickle. In an instant, his life’s liquid dried and the hole in his chest sealed itself up like punctured bread dough. What was left was an odd numb sensation.

Okay, pardon the clumsy descriptions, but the rest of this opening paragraph answers a couple of the initial questions, but then raises more.

He’s dusty and dirty. Perhaps he came from a battle, or has traveled a great distance. Perhaps he’s homeless. We don’t yet know.

He’s bleeding, but the bleeding is stopping and he watches this happen “thoughtfully” as if it is either not a surprise or is a common occurrence. This is provocative. Why is he bleeding? How severe is the wound?

The bleeding stops, dries up and then the hole in his chest seals up? Whoa! What is this? He was apparently shot in the chest and was bleeding, but he is suffering no effects AND the wound closes itself! What is going on? This is a bigger story question.

Okay, so we now know that this time soldier was shot and woke in an unfamiliar place. He probably traveled through time from the place where he was shot. Somehow, though, his body can heal itself. If he can’t be hurt, then maybe he can’t die. What does this mean? Why can’t he be hurt? Is this a curse, a blessing, magic, advanced science, or a function of time travel?

All these questions would occur to me and I know the rest of the story.

If the story questions are intriguing enough to propel the browser forward, the hook sets, and you’ve just landed a reader.

Now that the reader is hooked, the rest of your story needs to deliver on the opening story promise and answer all the initial story questions in a believable and satisfying manner. How the writer accomplishes that is a huge topic worthy of many future posts. For now, I refer you to your favorite writing book or web site on how to finish the story you started.

So, let’s recap the importance of first lines.

First, you capture the browser’s attention with an attractive cover, unique or intriguing title, polished story summary blurb, and reviewer blurbs from reviewers the reader may know (a best-selling writer would be good).

Then you quickly hook the browser with a first line that immediately raises a story question that the browser wants answered and is willing to keep reading to discover.

Write a great first line and you have one more effective way to turn a browser into a reader.

And that is exactly what a writer wants, to have readers.

In my next post, I’ll talk about one of the other elements of turning browsers into readers.

Until then, what are some of your favorite first lines from novels you’ve read? Why do you like them?

If you’re a writer, how do you approach first lines?

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One response to “Famous First Lines

  • Mark J. Taylor

    Thanks for stopping by. Yes, I’m a new follower of Sean’s and look forward to his first novel being published in a few days.

    I didn’t cover the topic of beginning a story “in media res” or in the middle of the action as is often advised by writing gurus, but it certainly is all part of writing an opening that hooks the reader and compels them to keep reading.

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