Tuesday, August 17, 2010

First Lines

We've all heard don't judge a book by it's cover, though I'll admit I do that all the time. I've been known to pass on a book if I don't like it's cover. But that's not what I want to write about today. What about judging a book by it's first line? If the first line doesn't hook you or grab you by the eyeballs, do you put it down or continue reading? Personally, I keep going, but that first page has to pull me into the story. Here's a an example of a great first line that gives just enough information and tickles our curiousity bone (which is connected to the funny bone, of course).

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone - J.K. Rowling)

Right away I'm thinking, who are these Dursleys and why are they so proud of being normal unless they were constantly worried about appearing not normal? And the 'thank you very much' indicates that they were a bit snooty about appearances in general.

At first glance it seems easy to come up with one line. But every word choice is important to convey tone, voice, mood. One little line could be the difference to whether someone picks up your book and buys it or whether he or she puts it down and moves on. Oh, the pressure! So far I haven't entered many online contests, since most require a finished ms, but I did submit my first line to a critique thread on literary agent Nathan Bransford's blog. In his forums there's a thread for rating and commenting on first lines. I typed my line in and nervously clicked 'post now.'


That was 3 days ago. I figure everyone was either blown away by the absolute genius of my word usage or else they couldn't find a polite way to say, "Write much?" Did I mention that the thread has been moving lower and lower down the blog roll, my name glaring off to the right as the last person who posted?

To comfort myself, I looked up some first lines from books I have around the house. See if you guess can guess where they come from.

Coraline discovered the door a little while after they moved in the house. (Okay, that's a give away. But there's good stuff in that opening line. That door leads to a very creepy adventure.) Coraline by Neil Gaiman.

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.

When I wake up the other side of the bed is cold.

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.

We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.

Miri woke to the sleepy bleating of a goat.

Claudia knew that she could never pull off the old-fashioned kind of running away.

(From the book I'm currently reading...)
The Austrian horses glinted in the moonlight, their riders standing tall in the saddle, swords raised.

Rain fell that night, a fine, whispering rain.

Once there were four children named Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy.

What do you think? Did they grip you? Intrigue you? Did they set the tone? Would you want to read more or is there just not enough to tell? If you recognize some of these, feel free to put your answers in the comments. I'll post them on Friday along with the first line from Nitpicky.


  1. I know a few, and feel like I should know a couple others. I'll post my answers at the end of this, so spoiler alert for those who want to give it a try themselves...

    Anyway, nice post - I don't think that I'm too picky about first lines when I read. I usually read a book based on things I've heard about it, recommendations from people I respect mostly. Or just on a general feeling I have about it before I actually open it up (maybe the jacket design or something). With that in mind, I think I tend to give books more of a chance than the first line/ first page, though I'm sure there HAVE been times when I've randomly picked up a book somewhere and been drawn in by that first line, paragraph, page... more the exception than the rule for me, though, I believe.

    Separate from any ability to hook readers, the opening lines of a book do certainly set a tone, and the best ones can linger on and affect the story that follows. Sometimes they're even interesting/catchy/whatever enough to be remembered (my memory for specific lines I've read is not great, I think).

    Anyway - looking forward to your own first lines!


    -- my answers --

    1 is Coraline (duh); 2 is I Capture the Castle; 3 I don't know; 4 I think I know but can't remember off the top of my head!; 5 I don't know but it sounds awesome; 6 don't know; 7 is From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (sp?); 8 and 9 don't know; 10 must be the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

  2. I'll have to go hunting through my favorite books when I get home! I love where there is a bit of mystery in that first line that begins to be fleshed out throughout that first chapter--as long as the writer wasn't trying to be clever for clever's sake. I think that movie screenplays that do the same are exciting for me as well.


    By the way, good looking blog! I love the readability of your colours and that pattern is amazing. /artist blathering

  3. I find myself more often being hooked by the end of the first chapter than the first line. I often find myself picking up a new book to "just read the first chapter" and then finding myself COMPLETELY unable to put it down.

  4. Hi Jason, thanks for stopping by. You've made some great points.

    Most books that I read are based on recommendations too. When I'm browsing at the the library/bookstore for something new I tend to decide based on a) the cover, b) the back/inside jacket (and it irritates me when there's nothing but blurbs of praise), and c) the first few lines.

    I think unpublished writers are often looking for that magic formula to get an agent to look at their work. There's so much competition to get something picked out of the slush pile. That first line, first paragraph, first page becomes important. On to your guesses...

    4 out of 10 Nice!

  5. Thanks snakey, that means a lot coming from such a talented snake as yourself! It was fun putting it together.

    I agree and I love that too. It was fun going through some of my favorites and current reads.

  6. That's so true, kimmy. There's nothing better than an end of the chapter hook. I've often found myself reading way too late because I had to start just one more chapter.

  7. I love when a book grips me from the first page. But when it doesn't I try to push through anyway because often it ends up being worth it and the book turns out to be really good or at least more enjoyable than I thought it would. I hate not finishing a book. But I must admit that I have picked up a book at the library because the title or cover picture grabbed my attention, opened it, read page 1, didnt feel hooked so put it back on the shelf.