I wanted to title this, “First Lines: WTF?!”, but I thought some people might find that a bit offensive. And anyway, the title I ended up using better communicates the topic of this post. (Ad as you’ve probably heard here and in many other places, that’s one of the main things that draws in readers.)
I was plowing through the 600+ blogs posts my reader has racked up in recent weeks—I’m still not done—and I came across another post on the importance of a good first line. And as I was reading it, I thought to myself: “Why do people get so worked up about one little line?”
1. “It’s the first thing an agent/editor/reader will see, so it’s important to get it right.”
2. “The first line has a larger impact on readers because it’s in such a prominent place.”
3. “Many readers see a cover, grab a book, read the blurb, flip to the first page, and read the first line.”
4. “Readers buy books based on the first line; if the first line is bad, how can they trust the author to have written a good book?”
All reasonable arguments, I’ll admit. But I think they place way too much emphasis on one little line. One sentence cannot carry a 100,000 word novel. I’ve never seen this much emphasis placed on any other sentence in a story, except as a general “Make every sentence as good as you can.” Nobody demands that a writer have a perfect third sentence, unless that writer is John Scalzi.
I rarely, if ever, see writers expounding on the importance of a fantastic final line, although there’s at least as much structural weight implied by that position. And I’ll be honest, I can’t remember very many first lines from books I’ve read, but I do remember quite a few last ones.
Now if we think about the reasons I quoted above, a first line will likely appear in more versions of a story. It will be in the sample pages, the partial, possibly even in the query or synopsis, if it is that sort of sentence. So yes, it will be seen a lot. It will be seen by those who don’t finish the book, but do take the opportunity to leave a scathing “review” on Amazon. So yes, it will likely be seen the most out of all the lines in the book.
But so what?
If it’s a bad book overall, it won’t matter what the first sentence is like. Even if you spend hours slaving over this all-important scrap of literature, it won’t matter if the rest of the book can’t hold up. (The same goes for any other sample or benchmark of your work, but we’ll stick to the first line for now.) No matter how much you polish it, if the rest of the book isn’t polished, it won’t matter. And if the rest of the book is polished, it won’t be such a big deal either.
Here’s a little secret; I have never bought a book based on the first line. I’ve picked them up because of titles or covers, flipped through the pages because of good cover copy, even read a chapter or two in store because of a really good opening. But I buy books now mostly based on recommendations, or good reviews, and that’s true for a large majority of readers I know.
I’m not an agent nor do I know any agents personally. (I have read slush and been staff for a small e-mag, and I never accepted or rejected a piece based on the first line.) Perhaps someone will chime in with an example of where a first line made or broke a deal, or convinced them to pick up or put down a book in-store.
Of course you should always try to write to the best of your ability, but to be constantly pre-occupied with ten or twenty words that may or may not make it into the final draft is just silly.
Well, that’s how I see it. I’m sure there are folks out there who would just love to disagree with me. I’m looking forward to it.