Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Reeling Me In

The play may be the thing wherein Hamlet caught the conscience of the King, but the first sentence is the thing that catches the attention of all of us peasants.

I read a lot about writing and frequently the topic of grabbing the audience comes up. A lot of people say that you have to pull in the reader with your very first line.

So, I decided to pull some books at random from my shelves and see what they had to offer.

The Kitchen Daughter (Jael McHenry)

“Bad things come in threes.”

Not only do I immediately know that things aren’t all bright and shiny in the world I’m about to enter, I know that there are going to be three specific issues. So, now even if the very next sentence tells me what the first bad thing is, I have to stick around to find out about the other two.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (Mark Haddon)

“It was 7 minutes after midnight.”

At first I wasn’t really sure what struck me about this line, even though I did want to read more. Then I realized that it was the specificity of the time. Saying it was just after midnight isn’t particularly enthralling, but now I want to know why it’s important that it’s exactly seven minutes past. And who it’s important to.

The Picture of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde)

“The studio was filled with the rich odor of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amid the trees of the garden there came through the open door the heavy scent of lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.”

This is a beautiful sentence, but probably my least favorite of the first sentences here, which surprised me, because I’ve always really enjoyed this book. Despite giving me a vivid mental picture of the room, it doesn’t give me an immediate reason to care about why I’m there.

Halfway to the Grave (Jeaniene Frost)

“I stiffened at the red and blue lights flashing behind me, because there was no way I could explain what was in the back of my truck.”

What the hell’s in the back of her truck? Is the cop going to find it? What’s going to happen next?!?!

At Last (Jill Shalvis)

“I’m not lost,” Amy Michaels said to the squirrel watching her for his perch on a tree branch.

As someone who has a tendency to talk to animals, myself, and inanimate objects with regularity, I immediately feel for this character. I want her to get found. Much like I wanted myself to get found when I was insisting to my car the other day that I knew where I was going. (Totally didn’t.)

Bloodline (James Rollins)

“They once called her a witch and a whore.”

Them there’s fightin’ words. What exactly did she do to earn such unfortunate nicknames? And more importantly, why don’t they call her those things anymore?

The Indian in the Cupboard (Lynne Reid Banks)

“It was not that Omri didn’t appreciate Patrick’s birthday present to him.”

What did Patrick give him and why does it suck so much? Because, come on, if you use that many negatives in a sentence, you’re not really thrilled with the gift. Now, tell me why.

From my very teensy sampling, I can see why first lines are so important. I feel fairly confident that if I had never read any of these books before and was asked to decide on whether I would by reading only the first sentence, all but Mr. Wilde’s would be on my bedside table.

It seems that the most important thing to me is that I be left with a question after reading the first line. Something or someone I want to know more about. Once I have that, I’m hooked.

What do you look for in a first sentence?


  1. Now I want to read all those books, except Dorian Gray which I've read - and liked. But I'm with you, I didn't read it because of the first line.

    I like good first lines too, but they are never the reason I read or don't read a book. Usually the reason is the cover...that kind of sounds bad. Talk about judging books by their covers...

    Nine out of ten though, it is because someone has ranted and raved about a book and I have to read it to find out why they loved it so much. Which is why I'm still trying to finish Harry Potter actually...

    1. The covers get me sometimes too. I was in an airport and already had a book to read when I saw Vicki Patterson's The Taken. Loved the cover so much I bought it right away. =)