Now, I’m not talking about general first impressions, of course – but of book first impressions! 🙂 Annnd….I know this post was supposed to be up days ago, but apparently WordPress had other ideas, and didn’t post it for me. So here it is, anyway!
We all know the important parts of putting a book together. Cover, editor, marketing…but what happens after the reader first clicks onto your Amazon page? They might take a look at the cover, and decide that they love it enough to look further. A cover may not bother them, and they’ll go straight to the blurb. (I made a big post on writing a blurb here.) After they’ve read it, been hooked enough to read a bit more, what next?
They’re going to take a ‘Look Inside’. And that’s where the book either lives up to its promise, or falls a little short.
Because the most important part of your entire manuscript – really! – is the very first line. Anyone who has ever had to write an essay knows that it must begin with a sentence that sums up everything the essay is about, your opinion, or your viewpoint. A manuscript is no different in that it must sum up the feeling of your entire novel, and hook someone is just a few words. First, let’s take a look at some great first lines, then we’ll see what sets them apart. (Just to note, first lines in any book are subjective, but I’ve tried to pick lines from classic books that I think most people will know pretty well, and most will agree on. 🙂 )
The Good Stuff
“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
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” George Orwell, 1984
“I am an invisible man.” Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
“Call me Ishmael.” Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
“All children, except one, grow up.” J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan
“I had been making the rounds of the Sacrifice Poles the day we heard my brother had escaped.” Iain Banks, The Wasp Factory
“Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, ‘and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice ‘without pictures or conversation?'” Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
What’s The Idea?
What makes all these opening lines both so memorable and brilliant? What is it that they all have in common? Well the first important thing to note is that all of them, in one way or another, sum up everything the novel is about. Without having to delve further, the reader already has the seed of an idea of what the book is about. J.M. Barrie’s line immediately encapsulates Peter Pan. Melville’s line open up a complex web of ideas about the narrator, who really, is the character that the book revolves around as he tells it from his own viewpoint. Austen’s famous line also immediately gets to the heart of what the book about, and even without reading further, we almost certainly know there will be a romantic couple somewhere in the novel who do not instantly fall in love.
So the first thing to consider is ‘does this first line get across the feel of my novel?’ I’m not saying that you have to give away everything in one sentence, but you have to set the tone. Take Orwell’s line, “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” For those who have never read it, it’s a science-fiction novel, and it also falls neatly into a ‘modern’ genre; dystopian. This line sets the scene first with its description of the day -cold and bright. ‘Bright’ on its own could bring back memories of sunny days, but not when coupled with ‘cold’. It brings to mind cold, bright places, such as the clinical areas of hospitals, or snowy days outside. It gives a clean, clinical feel to the first line, something quite emotionless and separate from anything comforting. Then there’s the second part of that line – the clocks were striking thirteen. This captures out attention straight away, because we know, in our world, clocks do no such thing. So this tells the reader that this is a strange, unforgiving place with different rules and ideas from our own. We already have the emotionless feel from the first part, so this can only tell us that clocks striking thirteen are not a good thing. This is a carefully crafted sentence, and each part of it, although short, gives the feel of the whole novel to the reader.
But What Else?
It can’t be as easy as setting the scene; there must be something more. And there is. It speaks directly to the reader. The quickest way to get a reader to connect with your book is to give them something they can relate to. On the surface, some of them don’t seem like they go too far into this, but unconsciously, you can connect with something in the line. Look at Lewis Carroll’s opening line – didn’t we all feel like that when we were small children? And with Ellison’s line, despite the fact none of us have ever actually been invisible (at least, I hope not!), we can feel the depression and loneliness behind the statement. Maybe it’s because at some point or another, we’ve all felt ‘invisible’ in some way, perhaps for some of us its because we’re the kind of people who empathise easily with people in a difficult situation.
Leo Tolstoy’s first line actually does this twice. First by suggesting the truth we all know behind any family – that no matter how much you love each other, there will be arguments and fall-outs, and no doubt there’s one or two people in the family who don’t speak to each other at all! But this leads to the other truth he holds up, that we like to have a social veneer over ourselves and our loved ones, to prevent the rest of society from seeing what would be considered to be flaws or immoral ideas. This also encompasses what the novel itself is about, and weirdly, strikes as true today as when it was first written.
So To Sum Up…
An opening line needs to be the most powerful sentence you write in the whole novel. It has to connect with the reader, either by evoking an emotion, or by linking it to a universal truth we’ve all felt at one time or another. It also has to immediately sum up the entire book in just a few words. This is the ultimate synopsis, is that it sums up everything that can be expected from the book in one go.
The best way to go about it really, is to write your whole book, edit it, then come back to that first line again. Tweak it and play with it until it covers everything mentioned above – and any reader who loves your first line, is already eager for the rest of your book. 🙂
What lines do you guys like the best from novels? What’s your favourite opening line ever? 🙂