The Amazing Astounding Absolutely Awesome First Line


Well-Known Member
Oct 28, 2013
Hello everyone, please excuse my "visiting" of per
Bear with me, its a bit of a woolly tale:

A few years ago I foolishly put up my hand to be a short story competition judge for one of the National science fiction conventions. This will be easy, I thought. Some light reading, I thought.

Well, wasn't I told when I received a ziggarat of manuscripts that piled one on top of each other would have been over my head, with less than a few weeks to read them all. How was I supposed to accurately judge their quality? :eek:

An editor friend of mine, who has done a LOT of slush wrangling, came over and sat own with me. "This is what you do. You open to the first page. You look at the first line. If it jumps out at you, if t's interesting, put it to one side and read it later. If it's boring, throw the manuscript away. NO EXCEPTIONS."

Thinking back on that experience (and there were some fine MS thrown into the NO pile for the want of a first line) I've been really conscious of a good first line when submitting my work to anywhere I'll be judged against a lot of others. Does anyone else have the same concern when they start constructing a story? Stephen King has some EXCELLENT first lines, and now I'm kind of primed to see them pretty much everywhere.

Also, what makes a good first line? Obvously it's not anything involving some fellow waking up from a dream... :D
I am much more concerned with crafting a great first line a pages than ever before. My YA novel got scores of kudos for a fantastic opener.

The trick: in instill awe, to create wonder, to ask a question that seems impossibly difficult to answer. The launch pad for the next sentences. The first line is a promise for all that is to follow. It's best served up mid-conflict/action. Nothing linear, static or boring. I can even be deceptively confusing or create frustration.

The crucial thing for me as a reader, though, is that the opening line must read as though the author isn't particularly trying. If it reeks of effort, it puts me off, same as a sweating man in a loud check suit trying to sell me something.
Seconded on that. I tend to read to at least the end of the first paragraph to get a sense of the voice. Most agents in the UK, that I know if, don't have a slush pile reader, but look at the queries themselves. (The huge agencies may be different, but I didn't target them.) That being the case having a strong voice with an opening that sets a question may be more effective than killing yourself to perfect an opening line.
I hear this mentioned a lot.

But just think:

If you wrote every chapter's beginning as though it were the first.

Then you wrote every paragraph as though it were the first....
I really like a good opening line as I think it shows the author is working at getting my attention, but... it's not the be all for me either. I will always read the first few lines of any book that I've picked up, why not, I've just gone through the effort of lifting it off a shelf. If you can get my attention quick, then I'll part with my hard earned cash. A little unfair after some poor sod has written 100k words or more, to be judged by the first twenty or so, but such is life.
Readers are also more lenient toward the established author.

David Weber's sixth honor novel has 40 pages about 12k words at the beginning that are mostly world building and recap and on 41 Honor Harrington finally shows up.

That whole 12k words beginning starts with
"Got a problem here. Skipper."

I did not get hooked into that one until page 41.
I hate to think that a publishing co will not like the first line and stop reading.... that sucks if I can be honest. I have read a lot of books that the start is slow and doesn't grab me for a while. Does every second have to be tension and hooks at the start always??

I guess I think more like a reader than a writer and I should get my head out of the clouds
I hate to think that a publishing co will not like the first line and stop reading.... that sucks if I can be honest. I have read a lot of books that the start is slow and doesn't grab me for a while. Does every second have to be tension and hooks at the start always??

I guess I think more like a reader than a writer and I should get my head out of the clouds

We've all had that moment, Ratsy. It stinks, but it is what it is. The start has to at least raise questions to stand any chance for a debut writer.
Hey the sooner I learn the ropes the better. I am reading On Writing finally and love it so far. I have learned a lot in the first third of the book already. (and he just started the actual advice part)
I love that book :) I, if I was an editor, would probably get through the first page before setting it aside. I just read so fast that it's no possible for me to stop at one line :eek:
There are some books that manage famous, quotable first lines, but they are not many.

"It was the best of times, the worst of times."

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man, in possession of a fortune, must be in want of a wife."

The second one could be considered an elevator pitch for the whole book..... :)

I think that a smooth start is as important - that one line leads you to the next and hey, you're at the bottom of the page with nothing having jarred you.
I guess that the things that grab you don't have to be wildly dramatic -- being interesting isn't the same as having an explosion in the first sentence (and Aleph's friend said, "If it jumps out at you, if it's interesting..."). All sorts of first lines have jumped out at me and they don't need to be lovely and quotable, just engaging. I think the best ones start with a character and tell you something about them. So I love the Pride and Prejudice first line (of course) but also the first sentence of Persuasion:

'Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up a book but the Baronetage'.

He's not the main character, but he's a powerful part of her life -- it's a clever way of introducing environment, I suppose.

On the other hand, if I stumble over the first line or don't find it engaging, it'll take more to persuade me that the author knows what he/she is doing.

Thanks, Aleph. I found that really interesting.
I wonder how many books that editor actually published. Many great books (great in my own estimation; I'm not thinking Top 100 Books here) have quite ordinary openings.

For one thing, how does a single sentence manage to be boring? A first chapter, sure. Maybe even a first page can be boring, though far more often a first page is merely inept.

For a short story, I'll buy it. A zinger of a first sentence can be a great help because we're pretty much here for the zinger when we sit down to a short story. Even there, I can name quite a few brilliant short stories that open in a mundane way.

I'm suspicious of the advice because it is so common. It slides off the tongue a bit too easily; it rides in the hip pocket like a derringer, at the ready for any party wit. Doesn't make it untrue, but it does raise my hackles.

Finally, I dislike this advice because of it's potential for intimidation. A beginning writer (I nearly said a 'young writer' -- shame on me) is anxious and timorous enough without someone essentially demanding he be brilliant from the first word.

As for judging, give the poor slush pile the courtesy of a first page, at least, won't you? Pretend you're at a party. Let that good-looking person who just came up to you get out more than a first sentence. It doesn't mean you have to spend the evening with them, and besides, they might turn out to be interesting. I picture that editor being that person at the bar sneering "ugly ... ugly ... cute ... ugly ..."
The idea of the work I have slaved over being discarded after a couple of seconds horrifies me too but... it's a strategy designed to make it possible to get through a huge pile of submissions in a realistic time (e.g. before the deadline/ within an agency's promised response time). It's a bit worrying to consider how much longer it would take to read the first page compared to the first sentence (say 120 seconds compared to 5?).

I wonder if it would be interesting to turn it round and imagine that we find ourselves in Aleph's position with five hundred (or whatever) stories to read and very little time.

What would we consider fair as a way of judging the stories, given the extremely limited time? Scanning the first paragraph? Picking a sentence at random? At least with the first sentence the writer knows to make it punchy.

In other thoughts, when I was marking essays, I could almost always tell how good the essay was going to be from the first paragraph and whether it would be stellar or solid, or hopeless. Because I was being paid to mark them and it was about teaching, not just judging, I didn't stop there, I read the full essays and commented throughout, but the experience was instructive.
If I have time later and am sufficiently bored I might set up a workshop exercise on this but, in the meantime...

I have taken part in a thing called The Hook on another website. It's all done anonymously and there are about sixty excerpts up, usually the first 1000 or so words of the manuscript. You are asked to be the editor and say where you stopped reading and why. It is utterly brutal - I've done it twice, both for established, honed openings, one of which had a couple of publisher offers, one of which has since got an agent, so we're not talking basic error openings. One did well (although it didn't feel like it at the time), one less so, but still reasonably well.

To reciprocate, I read the others. One after the other in two batches. Believe me by number ten or so in a row if the first line or two didn't grab, I stopped. If there were any basic grammar errors, I stopped. If the voice wasn't there, or turgid, I stopped. I had fifty more to do, see...

I think I, who is far from a mean, horrid reader, reached the end of two out of sixty in the last batch, and thought yes, I might like to read on.

Juliet Mushens got over 3000 subs last year. Most top agents get subs at the rate of over 30 a day. They face that reading through 60 subs three times a week....

So, yes it's a reality and a fact. But it doesn't demand perfection - of the best of my two showings 1/3 of readers stopped - not intrigued, didn't like clutched as a verb, didn't take to the characters, too slow. It just demands you get enough voice and show enough competence in writing that someone, somewhere, might say, 'Actually, I quite like this,' before they reach for the next of sixty.

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