The First Line Conundrum

Scattered around writing blogs is the sage advice along the lines of “3 Ways of Writing a Killer First Line,” or “The Top 10 First Lines of a Novel” or “How to Hook Your Reader in the First Line.”

I have a problem with this. I don’t read the first line of a new novel and stop, judging its worth and merit on a single sentence alone.

I liken it to looking at a Van Gogh painting and focusing on a single brush stroke and missing the beauty and grandeur of the night sky.

A great first line can hook you in. But it’s when you understand it within the context of the first paragraph, the first page, the first chapter through to the closing line of the novel that its true power and beauty is revealed.

I read beyond the first line. I want to be caught up in the artistry of the writer, from the first line to the first paragraph to the first page to the first chapter to the closing line; to have the sentences form sedimentary layers over me as I delve into the artistry of the written word. Or like being covered in a large bucket of spaghetti, tangled in the complexity and power of words (you chose which simile works best for you).

The first sentence encapsulates the power, breadth, beauty and depth of a novel. It retains its power because the remainder of the novel bears out the enormity and scope hinted at in the first line.

But every sentence must work for the reader. Every sentence must be crafted as delicately and intricately as the first.

Stand back and admire the beauty of the whole. Then step closer and examine the individual brush strokes to understand why it has captured your imagination.


6 responses to “The First Line Conundrum

  1. I used to write “clever” titles for blog posts and bizarre / “captivating” first paragraphs – I learned it really hindered technical writing LOL. I like opening gambits that make you want to sit in a corner and read the whole thing undisturbed. I notice however that some of the most innocuous opening sentences are the best. Cheap theatrics like ‘compelling’ first sentences have more to do with the way blog posts appear on a web page more than literature – and even less to do with the reality of the writing it often turns out.

    You know, it’s terrifying to comment on Adam’s posts because I become acutely aware my grammar and syntax may not pass scrutiny.

    • It’s teh interwebz. No one cares about syntax or grammar, only trolling 🙂
      Blogging can have cheap theatricality, but I write from an essayist’s perspective (curse of being an English teacher)

  2. That was another excellent post today. Thanks so much for sharing. Keep up the fantastic job.

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  3. I don’t stop reading after the first sentence either, unless it’s a really bad first sentence.

  4. I like to try and write good first lines but you’re right, they’re not the be-all and end-all. I think a good first few paragraphs are a more solid foundation, but I can’t help thinking that a coherent style, a solid structure and an interesting plot are more important. That said, I often write my first line last, after I know what is to come, so the first few lines can act as a better statement of intent.

  5. There is a lot of buzz about first lines right now and it’s interesting to look at them on their own, but you’re absolutely right, they are only as good as the sentence that follows. When choosing a new book, I’ll give it at least one page, but if I’m not pulled in by something, no matter how good the blurb is, I won’t buy it.

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