[originally posted at kalayna.com]
Some would argue that the only line in a book more important than the first is the very last line. I’m not sure I would go that far, but as a reader, I know I’ve been sold by an opening line in the past.
When I’m in a bookstore, browsing, the very first thing that draws me to a book is the cover. They always say not to judge a book by its cover, but marketers aren’t stupid so different genres tend to have their own ‘look’. By designing covers which look ‘the same but different’ within a genre, the marketing people have conditioned readers to gravitate to books that display certain visual elements. Once the cover has done its job and urged me to pick up the book, I flip it over and scan the back blurb. Now, you must understand I don’t actually read the blurb. I just scan the first couple lines of the blurb. As a whole, I’ve grown to dislike blurbs because they seem to come in a only a couple flavors: revealing too much about the story, or telling the potential reader absolutely nothing about the story. So, a quick cursory scan of the back–which won’t sell me unless it is extremely attention grabbing–then I flip the book open to the first chapter.
Now this, the first line, first paragraph, first page, is where I’m looking for the magic to happen. I don’t think I’ve ever read a first line and immediately closed the book and put it back on the shelf, but I have decided to buy a book after reading the first line. While a stunning first line isn’t necessary and I’ve read many a fantastic book which had a rather blah first line, if all other considerations are equal and I can only afford to buy one book, I’m going to buy the one with a good first line. So, with that in mind, let me share some first lines that enticed me recently:
“Two rules I live by: Never admit to being a shapeshifter on a first, second, or third date with a human. And never, ever bring along a zombie apprentice wannabe on a demon kill.” —Deadtown by Nancy Holzner
“All I can see through the night-vison goggles are the eyes of the vampire I’m pressed against; the rest of his face is kind of obscured by the large-caliber handgun I have jammed up his nose.” — Death Blows by D D Barant
What do all of these examples have in common? Voice. And a lot of it. Now, it might not be a voice that appeals to everyone, but for me, each of these opening lines were deal-sealers. I needed to read more after those lines.
The first example, the line by Laura Resnick, is actually a book near the top of my TBR, so I have not yet read it. But when I found it in the store, the title and that first line sold me. Beside establishing voice, what is accomplished in this first line? Well, we know the view point character killed someone, and we know they don’t sound all that remorseful about it as they are worried about their love life. A deceptively simple line, it is comical and establishes character. I can’t wait to read this book.
The second example, which is actually the first two lines from Nancy Holzner’s debut novel (but I couldn’t resit including both) are much more complicated than the first example, but they immediately establish so much. If I hadn’t seen the cover for this book, and I hadn’t read the back, I would automatically know from these lines that I was reading fantasy, and most likely urban fantasy from the modern tones (and I would be completely correct). We also learn a lot about the character, and glean a hint of an idea of what kind of trouble is in store for her. That’s a lot to do with two lines, and it is well done and comical.
The final example is actually a sequel, and as I enjoyed the first book, I was pretty much guaranteed to read the second, but how can you not love that line? There is a hint of coming action, dark humor, and an extremely interesting situation. There is also a stunning reversal, as I started the sentence expecting a situation totally different from what the end of the sentence revealed.
A great first line can certainly convince me to impulse buy a book. What opening lines have wowed you recently? What elements do you find really work for you as a reader? Is it the voice? The immediate sense of character? Setting? Action? Any all time favorite openings that have stuck with you?