Tuesday, November 19, 2013

How important are the first lines, paragraphs, and pages of a novel?

Paula’s thoughts about the first lines, paragraphs, and pages of a novel.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
"My dear Mr. Bennet," said his lady to him one day, "have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?"
I know I don't need to tell you which novel starts like this. However, a modern editor would probably use the red pen on the first two paragraphs, the first being the author’s statement, and the second being telling, not showing. He/she would say the story should begin at the third paragraph – or maybe even later in the conversation between Mrs. Bennet and her husband. Thus, we would lose one of the most quoted ‘first lines’ of any novel.
The reason I’m thinking about first lines, first paragraphs, even first pages, is that I’ve tried several times to get the start of my current ‘work in progress’ right, and still can’t decide which version is the best.
But now I’m wondering whether it really matters. Do readers really get pulled in by the first few lines of a story? Do they decide whether to buy or not to buy based on the opening sentence?
I’m beginning to think the first line and first paragraph are probably less important than the ‘experts’ would have us believe. It seems to me that they are basing that advice on the image of someone standing in a bookstore and picking up a book. In that scenario, the back cover blurb and first page of a book are probably the most important ‘hooks’ for a reader. (In my case, if the back cover blurb doesn’t interest me, I don’t even open the book anyway!)
However, in today's world, more books are bought online, and with Amazon’s facility of ‘click to look inside’ i.e. a sneak peek at the first chapter (or more) of a novel, the reader is sitting at a computer, or using a laptop or tablet. They have more time – and therefore, in all probability, will read more than the person standing in the bookstore.
I’ve done this many times, and have invariably read far more than the first page (unless it happens to be riddled with grammatical errors or typos etc). Maybe I’ll write another post about what puts me off a novel when I do this, but for the moment, I’m trying to decide whether the ‘average’ reader is influenced by the first line, paragraph or page.
I’d hazard a guess that, assuming the book is well written and edited, the majority of readers will make their decision based on the whole of the Amazon excerpt. If this is the case, perhaps we should be looking at the whole of the first chapter. Are the main characters defined? Is the set-up/location established? Are the seeds of future conflict or problems sown? All these can make the reader want to buy the book to find out more.
In conclusion, I’ll say that the opening of my novel ‘Her Only Option’ is probably my weakest, and if I had the chance to rewrite it, I would probably start it about halfway down page 2. However, the Amazon sneak-peek allows the reader to sample two and a half chapters of this book, and recently someone made this comment on Facebook: “I read the whole of the free sample, and now I'm hooked. When does the movie come out?”
That reader wasn't put off by a weak first line or first page, so maybe the first lines/paragraphs/pages aren’t as important as the pundits would have us believe.


  1. Interesting thought, Paula. I've heard that he all-important first line is seconded by the all-important first paragraph, then the end of the first page and the hook at the end of the first chapter.

    I agree that a sum of the introduction to the story (i.e. first chapter or two) determine whether I'll finish reading a book. I will put down a book and never pick it up again if the grammar is way too faulty, or it feels like the author doesn't believe in editing.

  2. There are several online lists of 'the best opening lines' of novels. Here is one of them: http://www.infoplease.com/ipea/A0934311.html
    I have to say that, while some of these are undoubtedly intriguing, there are others I would never class as a good opening line. !

  3. I agree that technology changes the way we look at things for sure. Normally, at a bookstore, I would do like you and look at the cover and then the back blurb to see if the story interested me. I can't even remember a time when I would open the book to look at the first line.

    Now, with extended samples so easily available, a reader has more time to make a decision about what he/she wants to read. And perhaps the first page and even the first chapter in its entirety become more important than just the first line.

  4. I agree that for the reader, there might be more than the first line, paragraph, chapter, etc. But for an editor or agent, who is pressed of time, I'm not sure that's the case. I think it might depend on the audience.

  5. Agree, Debra, that the first few pages are probably the most important in persuading someone to buy the book.

  6. You're absolutely right about it depending on the audience. Agents and editors all have their own personal preferences, and so have readers!