Our Pages

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Most Important Line of Your Life

The first line of a book is arguably the most important line. Most readers today give a novelist fewer than seven minutes to spark their interest. Most browsers in book stores and on the internet read the back cover /blurb of the book then read anywhere from the first page up to the first three pages. They rarely read beyond the first three pages to see if the book captures them, so if you have ever had the argument that your book really starts to get interesting on page ten, you better take up a new line of thinking. In today’s impatient world, the reader, agent, or editor may not spare you beyond that first line – so make it count. The reader wants to know immediately they will enjoy your book, and if the first sentence is dull or confusing what is that telling the reader?

Sol Stein, author of Stein On Writing suggest there are questions you can ask yourself about your own first sentence to see if it engages the reader’s curiosity.

  1. Does it convey an interesting personality or an action that we want to know more about?
  2. Can you make your first sentence more intriguing by introducing something unusual, something shocking perhaps, or something that will surprise the reader.

I think the most important thing Stein conveys that a writer should remember about first sentences is that, “Your entire story or novel may depend on that first sentence arresting the reader’s attention. A terrific sentence on page two won’t help if the reader NEVER gets there.”

Obviously, I’m a believer in the importance of first sentences. In fact, I blogged last year about first sentences that have stuck with me for many years from some of my favorite books. Would the novels have been some of my favorites if they had not started off with a bang? I venture to say no.

I’ve asked members of my critique group to share some of their favorite first sentences so I could quickly analyze them here, and see if the sentences stand up to the Stein test. The first sentence I’ll share is one of my all time favorites.

  1. “There was a scream, and the loud roar of fire enveloping silken hangings, then a mounting crescendo of shouts of panic that spread and spread from one tent to another as the flames ran too, leaping from one silk standard to another, running up guy ropes and bursting through muslin doors.” Author – Phillippa Gregory – The Constant Princess

What can I say about this opening sentence besides the fact that it is fabulously visual, conveys something shocking, unusual and an action that we want to know more about. Who started this fire, where is this fire, what is the deadly outcome of this spreading fire?

  1. “I’d never given much thought to how I would die – though I’d had reason enough in the last few months – but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.” Author Stephanie Myers – Twilight *Sentence contributed by Jerrica Knight-Cantania
Talk about introducing an unusual and shocking situation! How could you not read on? – And boy did we! Millions of us.

3. "In every life there is a turning point. Author - Julia Quinn – When He Was Wicked *Sentence contributed by Olivia Kelly
    Every person has experienced a turning point, therefore they can relate to how momentous it can be. This relation makes people want to read on to see what this characters turning point is.

    4. “The day I died started out bad and got worse in a hurry.” Author – Mary Janice Davidson – Unwed and Undead * Sentence contributed by Louisa Cornell

    This sentence is funny and intriguing, a bonus! The reader has to read on to see how someone who is dead can think it could get any worse. The sentence introduces a shocking situation.

    5. "Scarlet O'hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were." Author – Margaret Mitchell - Gone with the Wind
    * Sentence contributed by Lauren Smith

    Now this is an unusual situation and person being introduced. The reader wants to know what’s so special about Scarlet’s charm that has men overlooking her beauty.

    6. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only." Author – Charles Dickens – A Tale of Two Cities * Sentence contributed by Marie Higgins.

    This is an oldie but goodie. This sentence introduces a sweeping feeling of change and lets the reader know right from the start there is major upheaval going on. Humans thrive on problems, especially other peoples problems. Of course we will read on to see how the hope and despair, heaven and hell, and darkness and light play out.

    I wish I had time to share all the wonderful sentences that my friend’s shared with me, but that would take up to much space, and I’m only allowed so much!

    I’m about to embark on writing a new novel, and I’ve been playing with my own first sentence. I came up with three then asked myself which sentence lives up to the Stein test. Which one do you think I picked and why?

    1. When it came to concealing her feelings, Lady Audrey Cringlewood was much like a chameleon matching the color of a leaf to outwit its enemies.

    2. Lady Audrey Cringlewood had not driven the carriage that killed her father, but nevertheless, she was the reason he was dead.

    3. "What I'm about to tell you," Lady Audrey Cringlewood's mother whispered, "must never be forgotten."

    I’d love for you to tell my your favorite first sentence from a book near and dear to you and then tell me what it is you love about it.

    Go make your first sentences shine!

    Have a great day!
    Julie Johnstone
    The Marchioness of Mayhem


    1. I hope it was #3, Julie! I love that sentence. I REALLY want to know what Lady Cringlewood is about to share... :)

      1. Thanks, Olivia! I'm glad it intrigued you.

    2. Great post, Julie! I love #1 and #2 -- I would have a hard time deciding which one to pick if it were me. Both are great, but I suppose it depends on the tone of your book overall. #2 sets up a little bit darker of a mood, but it's so very intriguing. #1 tells me it's going to be a little more light-hearted with a witty heroine. I'd keep reading in both instances :)

      1. It was hard for me to decide too, but I did take the tone of my book into account.

    3. I like #3, Julie. It starts the book already in action. Something is going on right *now*. :)

      1. I'm usually a right in the moment girl as well, but the thing about number three is...oh wait, if I tell you I'll give away some of the book!

    4. I like #2 and #3. I love the last part of 2.

      Favorite Author first lines:

      I am Tersa the Weaver, Tersa the Liar, Tersa the Fool.
      - Daughter of the Blood by Anne Bishop

      The Wars of Light and Shadow were fought during the Third Age of Athera, the most troubled and strife-filled era recorded in all of history.
      - Curse of the Mistwraith by Janny Wurts

      Both of these lines are from Prologues and start a multi-book series. The first is Dark Fantasy and the second is Epic Fantasy/High Fantasy depending on how you want to define it.

      1. Thanks, Beth! I love that first line you shared. I'm going to have to read that book.

    5. Great stuff, Julie. I'm in love with #2. I would keep going just because of the intrigue.

    6. All three are great. I actually like the first two better than three, but Ava is right - #3 gets you right into the action instead of reading the character's internal first. Great job, woman!

      1. Thanks, Marie. I won't tell you ladies which one I picked. You have to read the story to find out! But I will say this, I managed to figure out a way to work each of these lines into the opening.

    7. Thanks, Catherine. Intrigue is always a sure fire way to keep me reading as well.

    8. #2 Julie. Definitely. The impact of that line is amazing. You didn't tell us that choice earlier. I think there was a different line when you first asked us about it. I don't remember that line and I know I would have. Excellent blog!