I’m noticing lately how the first line(s) of a book seem to have some kind of unseen force around it with its ability to foretell to the reader what they are in for and, I mean, c’mon, it’s gotta be nonsense that such a weight—whether or not the book will be successful—should rest upon this one sentence.
I’m kinda thinking that the fuss that is sometimes made over the first line is a little bit of writer-snobbery because surely this one sentence, even is it is the first one, can’t possibly convey how the rest of the book is going to be? It’s only one sentence. Shouldn’t it be, at the very least, a page or five?
Thinking about it, though, it could be said that the first sentence is part of that important first impression that a book cover brings. When someone picks up a book in a shop (which is what I prefer to do; rather than read an excerpt online) the first bit of writing seen is the first sentence and it’s been reported lately that due to the onset of online social media our attention spans are waning more and more as technology progresses. So it’s beginning to make sense, to me as a writer, that I should be spending more time on this first of sentences.
As an example of what we (the general public) can take note from as good writing, here are the first sentences to the books on the short-list of The Man Booker Prize, starting with the winner:
Listen. Dead people never stop talking. Maybe because death is not death at all, just a detention after school.
A Brief History Of Seven Killings by Marlon James
Turin is where the famous shroud is from, the one showing Christ’s body supine after crucifixion: hands folded over genitals, eyes closed, head crowned with thorns.
Satin Island by Tom McCarthy
We were fishermen: My brothers and I became fishermen in January of 1996 after our father moved out of Akure, a town in the west of Nigeria, where we had lived together all our lives.
The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma
Randeep Sanghera stood in front of the green-and-blue map tacked to the wall.
The Year Of The Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota
Late one July evening in 1994, Red and Abby Whitshank had a phone call from their son Denny.
A Spool Of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
The eleventh apartment had only one closet, but it did have a sliding glass door that opened onto a small balcony, from which he could see a man sitting across the way, outdoors in only a T-shirt and shorts even though it was October, smoking.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Personally, I prefer sci-fi and fantasy but these first liners are effective, for me, in the way that they offer up just enough information that makes me want to continue reading to find out more. Which is in itself, a great way to go about writing a book.
However, they are not powerful enough for me to buy them from a shop and I probably won’t read any of them (well, I might read the winner but only because, you know, it is the winner) as, like I said, I’m more into sci-fi and fantasy. So, I’m thinking, let’s see what the first lines of some of my older books are and how they compare to this new Man Booker bunch:
“We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them. “The wildlings are dead.”
A Game Of Thrones by George R. R. Martin
The storm had broken. Pug danced along the edge of the rocks, his feet finding scant purchase as he made his way among the tide pools.
Magician by Raymond E. Feist
For three days Dr Alimantando had followed the greenperson across the desert.
Desolation Road by Ian McDonald
The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast sea, is a land famous for wizards.
A Wizard Of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin
This is the tale of Elric before he was called Woman-slayer, before the final collapse of Melniboné.
Elric of Melniboné by Michael Moorcock
The Drenai herald waited nervously outside the great doors of the throne room, flanked by two Nadir guards who stared ahead, slanted eyes fixed on the bronze eagle emblazoned on the dark wood.
Legend by David Gemmell
The sun rose slowly, as if it wasn’t sure it was worth all the effort.
The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett
Maybe I’m biased towards sci-fi and fantasy but I reckon the second lot of first liners are better, more encapsulating and more beckoning for me to carry on reading, even though they were written decades ago. They do the same thing in offering up just enough information for further extrapolation but also give that little bit of not-of-this-worldliness that I’m such a fan of.
So, to me, the second lot of first-liners from the books written decades ago are favoured because they grasp at my readers eye with their use of imagining and world-building. It’s like a a safety net: once I see on page some outlandish, other-worldly jargon I know I’ll at least have my imagination stimulated. I don’t want to read real life, I get enough of that with, uhm, real life.
So I guess, yeah, I probably am prejudiced towards sci-fi/fantasy but hey, that’s a good thing because most of the books in my library are in that genre and so is the story I’m trying to write!