You have about fifteen seconds to get their attention, and given the average modern-day attention span, which is about that of a coffee-buzzed gnat, it’s best to try doing it in five. This being the case, one of the most important lines ever written in a novel is the first one. For contemporary writers, the days of Charles Dickens-style, drawn-out opening passages are gone. Not that we don’t still love the “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” type of opening lines of the golden oldies, but we generally adopt a different mindset reserved only for the classics; and even concerning them, that first line has to contain enough intrigue to move readers to the next sentence. This is a truth that has withstood era after era. One of the best examples I can think of to support this is probably the Holy Bible. Even though the bible goes on to confuse, bore, or entirely evade many of us in a literary sense, you can’t help but be a little intrigued by its first line. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and earth,” is, if nothing else, a pretty good hook. The bible though, is not a novel, so unless I am looking to write my own bible (which I certainly am not), I should probably look elsewhere for insights that will improve my own fiction writing techniques.

 

Probably my favorite opening line is that of Margaret Mitchell’s, Gone with the Wind. That first passage, “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but seldom men realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were,” is, to me, a brilliant starting point; not because it thrusts the reader into the heart of some on-the-verge-of-death conflict, but because it is so thick with insight into human nature, and as well, gives us an immediate but subtle sense of duality and arguably, deceit. Scarlett O’Hara herself is the conflict, and that alone presents a whole new breed of hook.

 

Mystery can also be a good approach. Stating something that intrigues a person, yet doesn’t say much at all about what’s happening, can (if done well) propel the reader forward with a strong level of interest. Human beings are, by nature, very curious creatures, and a writer who knows how to strike the precarious balance between not enough information and too much information can carry a reader quite a long way on this tactic alone. A good example that comes to mind which uses this technique is the opening line of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: “It was a pleasure to burn.” How can you not continue reading something like that?

 

In The Servants of Twilight, Dean Koontz begins with the passage, “It began in sunshine, not on a dark and stormy night.” This is a strong opening for several reasons. First, it’s ominous. By saying, “a dark and stormy night,” we know something bad is going to happen, and we all love it when bad things happen. Second, it’s mysterious. We don’t know what “it” is, and we really shouldn’t care, but somehow, we do, (probably because we know it’s something bad).  The third element of this opening line that strikes me (and probably my favorite part of it), is that it gives the middle finger to the dark and stormy night cliché that so many horror stories depend so heavily on. With this line, Dean Koontz is taking fear to a whole new, far deeper level by telling us (as if we needed to be more afraid) that really horrific things can happen just as likely in the broad daylight as anywhere else. Thank you, Dean Koontz.

 

Shock value, is of course, also an option. Using shock value as an opener is probably the riskiest approach because you chance offending, and thereby losing, the reader right off the bat. In a way, I respect this approach though because if the content of a novel is going to be offensive, at least its author is being respectful enough to let you know upfront. Still, it can’t be said that shock doesn’t do a pretty good job getting, and in the best cases, holding an audience’s attention. The opening of Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth is a shining example of that. With the novel’s opening line, “Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over,” we are either immediately hooked, or immediately offended. Whether or not it was Roth’s intention to shock the reader, only he knows, but there’s no denying it’s an eyebrow-raiser. This line, as far as I’m concerned, pretty much has it all: mystery, sex, shock, profanity, and self-confidence; all this in nine words, and with a poetic edge to boot.

 

Regardless of how I choose to begin each story, I have to keep in mind that the first sentence needs to pack a little punch, and that it doesn’t get any easier from there. In my experience, an interested agent will ask to see five to thirty pages of a person’s work in order to determine whether or not a submission is a worthy investment of their time. I recently re-wrote the first four pages of my third manuscript because as I reread it, I realized I’d given the reader very little, if anything at all, to hold onto. My initial intention was to start in the heart of the action, and while this is often times a fine idea, it was, in this case, not working. So I challenged myself to compact as much into the first five pages as I could, while still moving the story forward. In five pages, I tried to reveal a sense of who my character is, what normal life is like for him, and that some kind of conflict is on its way. This, while introducing a couple of characters, laying down a setting without going too heavy on description and detail, and moving the storyline forward at an interesting and engaging pace, without relying on back story and too much exposition, is no easy feat. But it can be done.  

 

In an era when people are tapping their feet, impatiently waiting for the microwave as it heats up their frozen dinner; when folks are rolling their eyes and looking pointedly at their watches in the less than ten seconds it may take while the internet uploads an entire library’s-worth of world history on their computer screens, there’s no time to dawdle. You have fifteen seconds or less to get their attention. Make it count.

 

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Comments
  1. Kim Justesen says:

    Again, nicely done. I really can’t call you my student anymore.

  2. Gabby says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this informative, pertinent and very timely post. I have just very recently been debating the topic of first sentences myself. The opening of Tale of Two Cities is by far my favorite of all books ever. The Bible’s being second, yes a great hook there. But the remainder of both books does not live up to the great beginning in my humble opinion.

    I can’t say I agree on the first line of “Gone With the Wind” since I thoroughly and passionately hate that book. Its kind of a chemistry/personal preference thing too. The first line was repulsive to me, bored me to death and the rest of the book served to put me deep in the ground as well. But I know many others like it for some reason.

    I like the one that refers to the “it” that we have to read on to find what “it” is. If worded he right way, that one is a great hook and will pull me in every time. I liked the shocking one too even though I don’t like that word (the F one), the sentence served a purpose in pulling me in to find out what is going on, the purpose of a good hook line.

    You did a great job on the choice of topic and the material in this post. I wanted to ask you a private question regarding this post, so please email me back Jared.

  3. Linda Bennett says:

    I do not read anything unless it grabs my attention at the start. Very informative blog, I enjoyed reading.

  4. Meta Seo says:

    Thanks for that awesome posting. It saved MUCH time 🙂

  5. Super post. Some good points you discuss in there.

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