If you are a writer then you have heard time and time again how important your opening sentence is in any story, yet as a reader, I personally have difficulty committing to a book based on first lines only. Another important piece of advice writers hear is to have a voice. For me personally, an opening sentence may perhaps grasp my attention, but too often I struggle to stay attached to books during that first chapter. I am by no means an expert, but sharing my experience as a reader may help show how very important this second piece of advice can be.
First lines are important, but if the rest of your first chapter isn’t strong I will be easily disconnected as a reader. This may seem obvious but I find in my reading too often I have very slow starts. When I begin a book it can take me weeks to really gain any momentum and be invested in the story or characters. It may be because I am a writer myself and can feel someone trying to sell me something, or it could be because I’m slightly ADHD and 100% busy. As a child, not being outside and active was difficult to me, so therefore books were a bit of a challenge. As an adult that “to-do” list is constantly screaming at me and self-care is a skill I have not yet mastered. Calming down and melting into a book is easier said than done. I have to really want to return to that world the author has created or the book can sit for weeks and end up an item on my “to-do” list. I’ve realized it’s not just a great character or world building that gets my attention, it’s the voice of the storyteller. That’s what I look for when selecting a book to read.
My process for choosing a book off of a shelf does include the first line but involves so much more. First of all, I absolutely look at the cover. “Don’t judge a book by its cover” they say, and yet the entire industry is making sure that cover sells the book. I do my best not to judge, but I am a very visual person so what catches my eye gets a further look and what completely turns me off stays put. Everything in between gets equal treatment. Next, I read the synopsis. I try to go for the one on the back that gives less than the inside flap. I find many of those give away too much information and I have yet to discover why that is. If I am intrigued at all I will open to the MIDDLE OF THE BOOK! That’s right. I do that and no one can stop me. How many times has a song come on the radio that starts off great but turns into something you didn’t expect at all? That’s fine, but that’s why first lines mean little to me. I like to skip to the middle first to know what I’m getting into. I have no idea what’s going on, I have no idea who the characters are, but I get a feel for the writer’s style. I have always done this even as a child. I read a paragraph or two and if they seem interesting, I’ll flip around and pick another random page. I want to feel the same intrigue elsewhere in the book. Lastly, I will read the first line.
The feel of the story and voice of the author are what make me want to read a story, the first line is just the means to propel me into that world. When I get to reading the first line after all of my previous checkpoints, I now have a destination so to speak and I want that first line to take me there with deliberation. That momentum cannot die out after the first line, it must continue to carry the reader onward. This is why so many experts suggest writing your story’s prequel or having a page zero so your actual first page a reader sees isn’t that beginning stage of your writing where you haven’t quite sorted out your vibes for that particular story. But also, I think I’m just a slow reader. I always have been. As I said, it takes a while before you can hold my attention. I may be alone in this but I think perhaps it’s something worth thinking about as a writer. Your voice, your style, should be consistent throughout. I’d rather be lured than falsely hooked. There are very few first lines or openings that I even remember. That may just be how my brain works, bad with names, bad with numbers, bad with remembering specific lines from books. I remember characters, moments, feelings. So as a reader, those first few lines don’t hold as much power for me as people say they do.
All of that said, however, there is no doubt that some stories have amazing first lines that are definitely unforgettable. Some are so famous that people know of them even if they haven’t read the book. Dickens’ “The best of times the worst of times” is always going to be a classic. Tolstoy’s “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” is also amazing. That’s a beautiful sentence all by itself and one of my personal favorites. Yet the winner of best first lines (since we’re talking about them) happens to be from one of my favorite authors. I was not even the one to make this decision, it was my sister. She has read about five times as many books as I have, and that’s just in the past week. What she has read in her lifetime is ridiculous. She reads almost all genres and while she is not a fan per se, she has read some of his books and claims Neil Gaiman holds first place for best first line ever (and I’d have to agree with her):
“There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.” The Graveyard Book.
So take from this what you will, I simply wanted to state that as a reader I take a long time to connect with a story and my methods are different so first lines are great but not what makes me read a story. I don’t start at the beginning when deciding whether or not to read a book, I absolutely prefer an excerpt from the middle. I’m not reading more because of your clever start, but because of the realism, I feel from the start. As I said, I am not an expert, and this is not about discrediting the importance of first lines, it’s stating that your voice is more important to readers like me. If someone picked up a book you wrote and flipped through the pages would that reader find consistency and a good flow, or would there be confusion and disconnect? I don’t even need action-packed adventure right off the bat, I simply need to be there right from the start. Not all readers can dive into a story with ease. For some of us, you’ll be competing with sunny days, laundry piles, work emails, dirty dishes, and food shopping. Your voice and first line may get you off the shelf, but if that voice isn’t strong from the start you’ll end up lost in the din of life and something I have to dust off next week.