Most writers learn from the very moment they start to write seriously that the first line they write has to be powerful. It has to draw the reader in. As readers we may not always think about how much that first line counts. As a former editor I can say that I realized quickly how important the first line was, and that when editors say if the first few pages don’t grab me I don’t read the rest–they mean it.
When I was younger, I used to read a book I started even if I wasn’t immediately drawn in. That isn’t the case anymore. Now, if a book drops my interest I rarely go back. However, I can’t say that first lines often impress me that much. It’s damned hard to write a killer first line. Shade that with the fact that what will impact one person as a killer line may not do it for another.
I’ve read dozens of books this year and even written a few myself. In all of those, including my own, I can only say that one book has delivered a first line that dropped my jaw and made me wish for all the world I’d written it myself. Pat yourself on the back a little Bruce, because it was the opening line of “On Unfaithful Wings.”
“I stood with my back to the church, much the way I’d lived my life.”
It was a powerful opener, and one that set the tone and mood for the entire story. I still love that line, and even though I’ve read the book to the end, when I see that line it still gives me goosebumps. It’s the kind of opening line I would love to create.
Most of my own work begins either with dialogue or action. I want to propel the reader into a world quickly. That works for me too, but that type of entry doesn’t usually swirl in the mind for long. The trouble with opening lines and powerful first pages is that the rest of the book had better deliver the same impact. I can say that I’ve read plenty of books that, while they may not have had the powerful opening line of OUW they did have strong themes and a compelling beginning. However, they tended to fizzle out after a few pages or even chapters. I want to be clear that I’m not speaking solely of indy authors either. One of my favorite authors from my youth who is traditionally published and quite famous has a horrible problem with long, drawn out, saggy middles. To be honest, if I were to pick up one of her books today I’m not sure I would finish it. I had more tolerance in my youth, and waded through those boring mid-sections. To her credit she did pick up and finish strong in each book.
Back to favorite opening lines. Everyone has a different idea of what makes an opening line great, or even just good. To me, an opening line must either have a deep, profound impact (as in OUW) or it must make me laugh, or thrust me into the action so hard it makes me feel like I’m moving with the story. If it does not do one of those three things, I’m out. Yes, first lines are that important.
Tami Parrington is a freelance writer and author of seven novels including Hell’s Own. Check out Hell’s Own on Amazon.com at http://www.amazon.com/Hells-Own-ebook/dp/B001B8QFF4