I’m impatient. If the first line doesn’t intrigue me, I don’t follow the author’s work to the second. And if the second and third and forth lines start to faultier, I close the covers and walk away. The book writing business is a ruthless world, with scores of competition vying for readers’ attention. If your story’s first line doesn’t capture someone’s interest, they will not buy or read your work. But, if you do so dishonestly they will not only shut the book but shut you down as a writer.
In all forms of writing, the authors’ aim is to do three things: Capture, Connect, and Communicate with readers.
- Capture their attention.
- Connect to them emotionally and intellectually.
- Communicate a message.
These are the three tenets of prose.
How, though, do you capture a reader’s and/or book buyer’s attention? That depends on the story you are telling, but the last thing you want to do is pull a bait and switch on readers. In other words, don’t write an attention getting line simply to provoke interest if it is not an integral part of the story.
Think of the first sentence as the initial shovel dig planted in the soil of a new house’s foundation. You wouldn’t want to stab your shovel on a spot of land three miles from where you will build your house. That would be a waist of time and energy. Not to mention the confusion it would create when it comes to light that is not the real site of your project. No. You want to write a first line that sets the story in motion and is true to the story’s soul.
This is not easy to do, and writers (including myself) can get caught up in the notion of landing a solid punch, making such an unforgettable splash that readers can’t help but join your journey. The trouble with that is readers have an uncanny sense of knowing when they are being hoodwinked. They know it before the writer realizes that is the affect of their first line.
I fell into this circumstance a few years ago when I crafted what I thought was an amazing first line for my story.
“The boy is dead.”
It had it all. It captured attention. It created intrigue. It was short and landed with a splash. But, it was misleading. My story does not center on what happened in that motorcycle crash involving me and a boy on a bicycle in an isolated part of India. It was part of my story, but it’s not what my story is about.
My story is about what it’s like for a woman to ride a motorcycle solo around India, a story built on the characters I encountered and the events that occurred.
Choosing to lead my story with “The boy is dead” wasn’t based on intentional misrepresentation, but I couldn’t see that was what I was doing until an early reader pointed it out.
My story, however, does involve the boy, and I now use that scene to open my book and set up the journey as one of danger and curiosity for the reader. That is what is at the heart of my story.
Take a look at your favorite books and read their first lines, then stop and ask yourself if they are true to the books’ hearts and spirits. Now look at your work and ask the same.