Paula’s thoughts about the first line (or paragraph) 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?"
A modern editor would probably use the imaginary red pen on Jane Austen’s first two paragraphs, both of which are author statements. He/she might 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.
I’ve often wondered about the emphasis that the ‘advice givers’ put on the first lines or first paragraphs of a story. The first line, ‘they’ say, must hook the reader, but is that true? Do readers really get pulled in by the first line of a story? Do they decide whether to buy or not to buy based on the opening sentence or paragraph?
It seems to me that this advice is based on the image of someone standing in a bookstore and picking up a book. In that scenario, the cover, the back cover blurb, and the first few lines of a book are probably the most important ‘hooks’ for a reader.
However, in this digital age 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 average person standing in a bookstore.
I’ve done this many times before downloading books to my Kindle, and have invariably read far more than the first page (unless that happens to be riddled with grammatical errors or typos etc). Therefore I’d hazard a guess that the majority of readers will make their decision based on part or even the whole of the Amazon excerpt, and not just the first line or paragraph. I’m not saying that the first few lines aren’t important, but that we should be also looking at the whole of our first chapters. Are the main characters well 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.
I’ll admit that the original opening of my novel Her Only Option was probably my weakest. However, when it was first released, someone made this comment on Facebook: “I read the whole of the free sample on Amazon, and now I'm hooked. When does the movie come out?”
This reader wasn’t put off by what I later considered to be a weak opening, so maybe those first lines or paragraphs aren’t as vitally important in this digital age as the pundits would have us believe. Readers are no longer standing in a bookstore reading the first few lines; they’re sitting at home and reading the first chapter (or more) on their screens.
In this case, instead of agonising over our first lines, perhaps we should be thinking more about whether our first chapters will hook our potential readers into downloading our books.