They say you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but we will. And, when publishing our books, we're constantly told by gurus (including us) that you should judge your own cover. Harshly.
Did you know your reader will also judge your book by your very first line?
The First Impression
Depending on who you ask, you will have between three seconds to sixteen lines to rope a reader. Many readers say they look at the cover, they scan the blurb, and they flip to the first page. If the first sentence is boring, this can change the entire decision to pick up a beautifully designed book.
Whoa, friends. That's a lot of pressure!
How do you make sure your book stands out when you're going after that reader's decision making? You create a first line that excites, engages, and entices the precious hands that are holding your book.
One way to make sure your book goes home in their tote bag is to excite your reader by connecting to an emotion, memory, or by creating a strong visual image. Getting their brain firing on all ends will make sure they push forward.
A commonly used tactic is the element of surprise, raising questions, and creating curiosity. Getting your reader to welcome the words into a visualization will keep them invested in the continuation.
It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. —Paul Auster, City of Glass (1985)
They shoot the white girl first. —Toni Morrison, Paradise (1998)
My sharpest memory is of a single instant surrounded by dark. —Mary Karr, The Liar’s Club (1995)
Do you see these introductions? Are you beginning to visualize the story from these first lines? It's also important to note that your first line doesn't have to be lengthy, complex, or a compound to grab your reader by the collar and shake them to attention. Morrison's opening line is six words - six powerful words.
In addition to creating a strong visual image, you can bring your reader in to your story through statements of purpose or facts. By doing this, you're teasing your reader and asking them to agree or disagree, to create their own theory or counterargument to what you have presented, and to personally connect to your words with a deeper involvement of their time. Making a reader feel personally invested will encourage them to keep turning the pages.
Your appeal to statements of purpose or facts doesn't have to be blatant and direct, but should appeal to someone's inner belief system.
“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
"I was five years old the first time I ever set foot in prison." —Jimmy Santiago Baca, A Place to Stand (2001)
"Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful." –Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind
Is a wealthy man in need of a wife, and if so, why? Is this a statement about society or about the individual's mentality? What kind of woman would he be looking for? Why is a five year old in prison? Who would let a five year in prison? Was he a visitor or was he inside for creating a crime? Why isn't Scarlett O'Hara beautiful? What is the reader's definition of beautiful? Why does it matter if she's beautiful or not?
All of these first lines are statements of fact or purpose, and they aren't dry, direct, pulled from a textbook Jeopardy worthy statement.
Another way to engage your audience is through laughter. You'll often hear people raving about books that had them hooked from the first line - because they found the first line so funny. Do you remember the first line of The Hobbit?
"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort."
Now that you've created a strong mental picture and appealed to your reader's inner belief system, what else can you do to keep them moving forward from the first line?
Tease them to continue or offer a reward.
A wonderful way to accomplish a strong teaser is with the element of surprise or shock. What was the last book you read where the first line made you stop and go, "WOW, what just happened?" When you read this first line, did you set the book back on the shelf and never open those inky pages again? Probably not.
Here's a few first lines ready to tease you in to turning pages:
My high school friends have begun to suspect I haven’t told them the full story of my life. —Ishmael Beah, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier
“I was not sorry when my brother died.” – Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga
“The man billed as Prospero the Enchanter receives a fair amount of correspondence via the theater office, but this is the first envelope addressed to him that contains a suicide note, and it is also the first to arrive carefully pinned to the coat of a five-year-old girl.” – Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus
It's Your Turn!
We want to read YOUR first lines. In the comments, leave the first line from your WIP or already published novel. We can't wait to see how you're going to push Happy Writers around the world to read past your first line.
Until next time, #HappyWriting!
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