The Amazing Astounding Absolutely Awesome First Line

No doubt about it, a great first line will help

But, and it's a big but, I can name you half a dozen books I love with less than auspicious first lines, and another half dozen with really great first lines that I turned out to loathe.

I've been in the position of reading a lot to find the good stuff, and barring really obvious stuff* then the first line isn't what grabs me. I give a book a couple of paras at least, if not a page. I can usually tell by then if something is going to work for me, or if the writing is not up to snuff. But one line? I'd have missed out on some really really good stuff if I only went by that. Agents don't want to miss the good stuff and neither do editors.

A good first line only needs to do one thing -- not put me off finding out what the second line is. A good first page has to hook me into the story.

Do agents/editors only look at the first line? I suspect it depends on the agent/editor. But I also suspect that most read more than that -- they read enough to tell them whether the writer can write. And for most subs (not all, see * below) that's going to take more than five-to-fifteen words or so.

I mean, Call me Ishamel. Boring, right? *buzz* Next! Last night I went to Manderley again. Who cares? *buzz* Next! At twenty three minutes past eleven Robert Weil drove his 53 registered Volvo V70 across the bridge that links Pease Pottage, the improbably named English village, with Pease Pottage, the service station**. Sorry, I saw something shiny and didn;t reach the end. Next!

*the most usual being a basic grammar error, a homonym slip up or trying to stuff three sentences-worth of detail into one super-rambling sentence.

**The opening sentence to Ben Aaronvitch's latest. Which is a bloody good book. The opener however is only of interest to me because I live a couple of miles from Pease Pottage. It is not an example of a shining first line IMO, though it might be a good example of a police report, which it is, except that 'improbably named'. But it is an example of a bloody good book. By the end of the first page we've got a bit more of Peter's voice etc, and it's clear the author can write and I want to see where this is going.
I understand what springs is saying, but that's not how our readers encounter what we right. None of us go to a shelf of books charged with picking out one as quickly as possible because we have fifty more to read. True, a slush pile reader must do this, but it's one reason among many why the traditional publishing model sucks and is crumbling.

I think how I pick books online is more typical and fairer. I want an excerpt. Give me a couple of chapters, though I'll rarely read that long. What I do is this: I start reading the excerpt.

If there are writing problems in the first paragraph, it's out; that is, grammar, spelling, that sort of thing. The basic mechanics have to be in place. It's like test driving a car. The beast must at least start up.

By the second paragraph I'm sending out emotional feelers. I'm a fish that wants to get hooked. It can be an intriguing premise, beautiful prose, snappy dialog, something outlandish or funny, or something utterly unexpected. Here the poor author is really at my mercy, because I myself don't really know what I want other than to be pulled in somehow.

If the story looks to be starting slowly but shows any signs of life at all, I'll keep reading. I may start skimming, still looking for that sweet spot. If I'm still not hooked by the end of the first chapter, I'll probably not go further. If, however, the first chapter intrigues me, I may go on into the second. Somewhere around in there, I'll make the decision to purchase.

This is actually more rope than I'll give a physical book, especially in a book store.

Yes, yes, we were talking about agents and slush pile reading. Fine. I'll make my first sentence as good as is necessary, but no more than that. I'm not going to obsess over it, and agents are not my audience. You folks are.
I suppose as a reader, I'm very much like an agent or publisher. Since sooooo much fiction doesn't appeal to me, even in my preferred genres, I insist on being intrigued right away. I'll go one paragraph max. That alone will tell me everything I need to know about reading further. Very much like a first impression when meeting someone new.
I'm neither a publisher nor an agent, but just one reader. For what it's worth, when I look at the first sentence, the first paragraph and, now, the entire ebook sample, I ask, "Why should I care about this character?" If I care about the character, I'll read through a slow start. Too often, I don't care enough to read on.
I suppose it could be argued that a fantastic first line is maybe more important for publishers and agents than it is for readers...

This is absolute gospel, since it takes a cat 5 hurricane or a lightning bolt to shock agents and editors out of their weary, eyeball-panning stupor.

I wonder how many great books have been unpublished because an agent or first-reader didn't like the author's first line. Would the book have gotten published if a different reader found nothing wrong with the first sentence?

I agree with Bowler1, and ratsy. And I couldn't agree more with sknox, and Kissmequick. Judging an entire book on its first sentence seems absolutely ludicrous. Far too many of the books I have enjoyed the most, began with what some might consider an average opening.

How many potentially great writers are tossed in the trash pile, never to be heard from again, simply because agencies are to cheap to hire a sufficient number of first readers?

I'm just saying...!
Stephen King has some EXCELLENT first lines
Yeah he does!

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.

This is so true, I'd rather a mediocre opening line followed by a great story, than the other way around

I wonder how many great books have been unpublished because an agent or first-reader didn't like the author's first line. Would the book have gotten published if a different reader found nothing wrong with the first sentence?

Terrifying thought that. I'm sure there are books I haven't started enjoying until part way through, let alone the fist line.

There are so many things to think about when writing. I think my stories all open real slow. Just looked at three WIPs and thought oh that's kind of a dull opener.

I wonder how much it has to do with the reader's mood when then open the book. After all if you pick it up in a lousy mood the same sentence might not excite you as it would if you picked it up in a receptive mood. Or I suppose one might argue that a great opening line should cut through the readers mood and drag them into the story no matter what... Alchemists
I'm years late to this discussion but I find the last line in a chapter to be very important. I want it to hook me, to make me find the time to keep reading or be strong enough that when I return I can slip right back in the story without having to brouse previously read pages. The Hunger Games was a good example, almost every chapter ended on a cliffhanger.
The tension between what the gatekeepers (agents, etc) want and what readers want is tough. I look at this through the lens of recruitment and CVs/resumes. In my last job I did a LOT or recruitment. I must have seen literally hundreds of CVs. When you get. A pile of 20 CVs dumps in your desk, you don’t read every line of every one. It’s different, but I ended up scanning for key words, so even the formatting was important because if the key words jumped out in bold, I’d be more likely to continue reading. Occasionally I’d find one that lit up all my keywords. It’s a different application, but I imagine the same principle applies to people scanning 20 manuscripts in a day. Grab a coffee, start reading. You’ve got a minute or less to grab my attention. If I find a mistake (spelling, grammar, etc) you’ve just given me an excuse to stop reading.

As a reader I’ve got a bit more patience, but I struggle to separate reading and critical appraisal these days :)

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