Wednesday, January 30, 2013

First Lines and First Pages

We’re often told that the first line of our novel must ‘grab’ the reader so, out of interest, I picked up 5 random Mills and Boon/Harlequin romance novels from my shelves and looked at the first lines. Here they are:
It took her a second to realize that the sigh she heard echoing in the small converted bedroom that served as her office was her own.
T D Waters nudged the man on the ground with his boot.
“So this is where the multimillionaire property developer comes for the occasional weekend away from the city.”
So he was still a sucker for a pretty face!
Neile didn’t even have time to ring the bell before the door was flung open to reveal her mother, her hat tilted drunkenly over one eye.
Did any of those grab you? Only one of them struck me as a possible attention grabber, but I won’t tell you which is was (yet!). Maybe you can guess? What I have found interesting is that the two with (in my opinion) the poorest openings actually came from the most recently published novels, and the one I thought was best came from a 1991 novel.
I could probably find another 5 romance novels with similar openings, none of which could be considered as particularly attention grabbing.
I then looked at the rest of the first pages.
The first continued with a (very) long paragraph about the dog the heroine had rescued from its cruel owner, followed, incidentally, by several more pages of introspection (including backstory) by the heroine.
The next told us that the hero took a shot at the second of two drug runners but then was shot in his side by the man on the ground.
The third continued with the heroine stopping outside the house, and then a long paragraph describing the house and the meadows around it and the snow-capped hills in the distance.
The next went on to heroine’s thoughts about the image she’d just seen in the paper of a famous opera singer, with his most recent girlfriend, and then of how much she hated him.
The final one continued with a conversation between the heroine and her obviously scatty and eccentric mother, in which the heroine is astonished to be told she is to drive mother’s next door (male) neighbour up to Yorkshire.
This leads me to make several observations:
Maybe the first line doesn’t have to be the dramatic ‘hook’ the pundits would have us believe, but the first page should pull us in somehow.
Any long introspection at the start of the story is a big turn-off.
The first page shouldn’t contain a lengthy description of a place – that can come later. A couple of well-chosen sentences can convey as much as a long paragraph.
The first page should begin where the story begins – not necessarily with the moment when she meets the hero – but certainly with some kind of surprise (pleasant or otherwise), or an event that seems likely to affect the hero or heroine's life.
It’s said that a character doesn’t come to life for the reader until he/she speaks, and a conversation of some kind on the first page may be the best way to pull your reader into the story.
It’s not necessary to introduce ‘conflict’ immediately, but the first page should have the reader asking at least one question about the protagonist.
What else would you add to this list?
(PS The excerpts were shown in order with the most recently published novel first, and the oldest one last)


  1. Interesting observations, Paula. I wanted to debate it, but the sales will always have the final answer. What works and what doesn't.

    I've spent a little time on Amazon,reading opening lines of novels using the look inside feature. It is pretty interesting. I'm not sure there is a formula that works, but I am pretty sure there is a formula for how to write an opener that doesn't work. ;-)

  2. We've had this discussion before and I seem to be in the minority (at least when it comes to the rest of the HWH gang), so I won't go into it again. :)

    I will say, however, that the line that grabbed me the most was "So he was still a sucker for a pretty face." I like the attitude.

    As for the rest of the pages, I like what follows opening 2 and 3--action is great, and I do like being grounded and knowing where I am. For me, personally, it helps me to visualize, which helps draw me into the scene. But again, that's just me.

  3. Teresa - I think that what works and what doesn't can be different for every reader, so maybe all we can do is write an opening line and first page that we're happy with - and the hope readers will like it too!

  4. Jen - your comment confirms what I've just said to Teresa. Everyone likes something different!

  5. The one that drew me in the most was the guy who nudged the other guy on the ground with his boot. It put me right in the action.

    And it sounds like the author continued with that action on the rest of the first page.

    Works for me!

  6. Great post.

    I was a fan of Mills and Boons as a teenager then dunno where all that passion

    I also get intrigued when a book starts on a dark night with winds blowing and the character trying to pace himself to his destination...

  7. Great discussion. If I knew the answer, I'd share it. Sadly, I don't. But I'm trying.

  8. Debra - that shows we're all different, because the man with boot, and the shooting scene didn't pull me in at all!

    Ruchira - I think everyone has read M&B/Harlequin at some time! I'd love to know the main age range of their readers!

    Ana - I don't think anyone actually knows the answer, because there isn't a single answer. We all seem to like different kinds of opening lines and pages!