Call me Susan.

ImageFirst lines. How important are they? According to a huge number of online articles, your first line is everything.

I have four self-published books. Take a look at these first lines:

My perfectly restored ‘67 Chevy Chevelle careened around the corner at Walsh and Park, the tires squealing in an effort to get my attention. ~Sunshine Hunter

“Susan, Mrs. Colter peed on the floor again.” ~Big Apple Hunter

“Hey, beautiful, do you have any blue underwear?” ~Sin City Hunter

“Stop it!” I whispered.” ~Big Easy Hunter

Detective Bentley’s blood pressure was on the rise as he paced the hallway of the unfamiliar police station. ~Windy City Hunter (not yet published, still messing around with the first line)

I think I swerved into a fairly decent first line for the first book, and now that I’m learning more about writing, I think the last one is pretty good, too. First lines good or bad, I think all of my books are entertaining.

While reading about first lines, I came across this site which lists 100 Best First Lines from Novels. I enjoyed reading it, and I was surprised so many were quite lengthy.

It was a dark and stormy night continues for another 51 words.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times continues for another 48 words.Image

It was love at first sight.  Joseph Heller started Catch-22 with a cliché.

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.  Dodie Smith wrote this first line to I Capture the Castle. I thought it was funny. I wonder if she sat in the bathtub when she wrote The Hundred and One Dalmatians.

Only three of the 100 started with a sentence of dialogue. A few weeks back, I learned this is something taught in classes – do not start your book with dialogue. I did it anyway.

I did shrink the information I gleaned down to a few tips for the first line of a story:
– You want to grab your reader’s attention.
– Your first line should be interesting by asking a spoken or unspoken question, promising something, or offering an unproven idea.
– Show your main character in your first line.
– Show your setting or give a sense of your setting.
– Your style of writing should shine through. Your voice should be identified.

Well, no wonder writing is so hard. That’s a lot to lay on one sentence.

I also read that first sentences are rarely memorable. You are more likely to remember a last line or a last scene. Yet, it is, of course, the first that is used to hook a reader.

As I read the articles, I also read the comments. There were some interesting comments about so much weight being applied to one sentence. Many people responded:

– The first few lines are important, not the first sentence.
– The first few paragraphs will set the tone and writing style.
– The first chapter is the beginning, but it’s not necessarily the beginning of the entire story.

Image

You take over. What do aspiring writers really need to know about first lines? Does the first line truly do the heavy lifting ascribed to it?

52 thoughts on “Call me Susan.

  1. Great, great post, Maddie! 🙂 I have to say that first lines are really important to me. I shall often pick up books and decide whether or not I want to read them just by checking out the first line. If it doesn’t grab me then it’s not for me – at that point. Please don’t think that I approach reading in this seemingly superficial way. Many of the books will be on my ‘To Read’ list. I have a lot of books in that pile(s)! It just helps me to work out whether or not I want to read the text at that point… I also find first lines far more memorable than last lines. ‘Catch-22’ is a favourite of mine, what a fantastic book. 🙂

    Kudos to you for putting yourself out there with your (potential) readers. Writing is a very personal thing. Whether the story is about you or not, so much of your creativity, your personality goes into writing that it’s very difficult to take an objective stance when it’s being critiqued in this brutal way. I already bookmarked the Smashmouth page and I promise I shall buy your books soon. Just need to clear my reading list a little… Chin up, more and more fans will start to come out of the woodwork and provide you with good support and constructive feedback. 🙂

    • Kate, thank you for your heartfelt response to my post. I find your approach to reading as unique as you are, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Cyril and Willy helped you decide at times. 🙂 I suppose the words took me by surprise because these ratings weren’t intended to be reviews, and I was taken aback at the harshness after just a chapter. I do have my chin up today, and it is because of new friends like you that I don’t feel alone as I continue this crazy writing adventure. … P.S. You simply cannot go from Mysteries of Udolpho to Susan Hunter. Don’t even think about buying my books anytime soon. Maybe next summer you can try one at the beach.

      • LOL! It sounds like Susan Hunter is exactly what I need to help me get through Udolpho! 🙂 I am going to (continue to!) find this challenge really hard going! It’s just as well Paula’s so patient…

        You’re very welcome. I understand how difficult it is putting your writing out there. People can be so critical and in such a horrid manner. Sometimes it’s a lack of tact, sometimes it’s probably just envy. They couldn’t do what you’ve achieved and the only way they can help themselves through it is to try and bring you down. Don’t let them. 🙂

        My man thinks I’m a bit of a loser for blogging (lol). BUT, he always says that he can’t get over just how nice the people who I blog with are. Seriously. I think everyone I’ve met in the blogsphere has been really lovely and genuinely interested and encouraging. Those are great people to have around you. 🙂

        • I agree! The people I’ve met since blogging are amazing. Everyone has been welcoming and kind. I was surprised at how supportive people are, too. It’s so nice. I work at home, and this is a treat to be able to talk with other adults during the day! 🙂

  2. First lines. So much pressure. I’ve learned to just start with something to get the ball rolling and then go back and work on that first line later. Otherwise one can become paralyzed trying to find that perfect line.

    • I think that is what I am still trying to figure out. Is it really so important for the first line to carry/cause that much pressure? If the first sentence isn’t killer, will a reader truly turn away? Your book has a subject that is interesting from the get-go. Although both your prologue and first chapter have strong, intriguing first lines, I already know I want to read your book before I see the first sentence.

      • Thank you! Very nice of you to say. 🙂

        Honestly, I think the first few sentences are important–not the first sentence alone. If the first sentence doesn’t blow me away, I certainly won’t stop reading a book. On the other hand, if the first paragraph doesn’t intrigue, well, then I might lose interest.

    • Well, Mike, get back to work and torture yourself a little more like the rest of us. 😉 I have your first line right here in front of me, and although dialogue, I think it’s strong. As soon as I read it, I know what I’m getting with your book – the setting, the character, and what is happening at the moment.

    • No they’re not. I just read yours, and I like them! 🙂 I spent the day helping my mother; she’s 83. As always, we talked about books. I told her that never in my life have I ever read a first line, let alone a first paragraph, or a first chapter before buying a book. I read jacket flaps or blurbs on the back of paperbacks to make my decision. For me, it’s too delicious to sit down with a new book, open it, smell it, and turn to the first page to start reading. I would never consider peeking before reading. She said she did the exact same thing – no peeking ahead of time. We both agreed that sometimes it takes a chapter or two or three to really get into a book, but that doesn’t take away from our enjoyment of the book as a whole. Keep writing!

  3. I’m not a writer but if I did attempt a book, I think my first line would be:

    Whatever you do, don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t read the next sentence…it may possibly kill you.

    Or,

    Hi, my name is Fred.

  4. It’s difficult to hear things like that about your characters and stories, so I can sympathize. =[ I know I would be upset if someone said those things about a character based on my own self.

    On the subject of first lines, I agree that they’re important whether one is writing a novel or a blog post, but I don’t see why they shouldn’t start with dialogue. I often start with dialogue myself. In fact, the first line of Big Apple Hunter caught my attention!

    • Zen, this is really gross, but in the old days of weight loss centers, we used to have the women pee on keto sticks. The simple answer is that it was an indicator of if you were burning fat or not. I did my fair share of cleaning the restroom, and I couldn’t resist starting the book that way. 🙂 I like dialogue at the beginning. I checked a huge stack of books in my library, and about 20% of them start with dialogue, and most of them are well-known authors. … I’m ok about the remarks. My heart took off like a rocket when I first read them. I told my mother I hadn’t really expected to *pay* for someone to be so critical, but this is a good learning experience.

  5. Love the Snoopy cartoon! Where did you get it?? This is so timely for me. I had the first of a four- night mystery writing class Monday night. First sentence important and the dead body must show up on the first page or two. Hmmm….I had the dead body making its first appearance on page 15 and spent a couple of hours yesterday rewriting my first page to submit to the instructor by Sunday. The feedback will be interesting. Very cool about the Sunshine Hunter promo…keep us posted on responses.

    • The little Snoopy cartoon is in several places; you should be able to find it in Google Images. Very nice that you’re taking a mystery-writing class. I’ve read that the dead body has to show up quickly. I hope your feedback is good! In my book, there is a hint of a siren at the end of chapter three, and the knowledge that someone has died isn’t until near the end of chapter four. I’m stuck between genres. My books are chick-lit with the mystery secondary. They don’t quite fit either genre 100%, so mystery readers are looking for action sooner; chick-lit readers are likely looking for more romance. … So glad you left a comment. I’ve tried to find you several times with no luck.

  6. “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” —– First line from The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway.

    I’m on the edge of my seat over that one, but there’s no accounting for taste.

  7. I think I agree with saying that the first paragraph or the first few pages matter more than just saying it all rides on one sentence alone. I don’t write books (yet?), but I struggle with introductions in my blog posts. Closing sentence? I got that shit! Title? Bam, genius! Where to start? I am lost. I usually start typing in the middle of my post and then go back and rearrange and add and play until I have a suitable completed post with at least a decent intro.

    • Looks to me like you’ve been writing a book for about seven months now. 😉 Have you seen the sites where you can have your blog posts, complete with pictures, published into a hardcover book? I think it would be an awesome idea to do it yearly. … No matter how you cobble your blog posts together, it’s working well!

  8. Stanley Fish has a great book, called How to Write a Sentence, which I would recommend. Also, I’m pretty sure “It’s was a dark and stormy night…” is notorious for how bad it is. For my fantasy (currently baking in the back of my brain while I write smut) I started with something along the lines of, “Mademoiselle de la Grand Mademoiselle’s entrails were the talk of the town when I arrived in Paris.” In case you’re wondering, the urn which contained them exploded due to the expanding gas.

    In all honestly, writing is a great way to learn about writing, as is reading.

    I read a bit of you Sunshine Hunter book and I liked it. I don’t read many books of that style though (mainly smut and Literature, like off of Gutenberg–go figure). Some people just have a chip on their shoulder. The woman who left you the personal review probably knows someone like the woman she described, and simply transferred her emotions about her to you.

      • There’s Self-editing for Fiction Writers, which I’ve not read. Eats, Shoots and Leaves is fun, but not the same subject.

          • Love the first line of your fantasy. It’s elegant and there are entrails – and Paris. I love it. … I appreciate the kind words about my book and the comments. I, too, think she transferred a bad experience to my character. I can’t seem to venture into smut, but if you ever write the fantasy book, count me in! 🙂

  9. Great post, Maddie– a nice mix of advice, sharing, helpful info, and personal story. Four self-published books?? That’s an extraordinary achievement– well done!

    Any creative who walks into the public arena can expect criticism– par for the course. Some of it will be helpful, some of it will be back-biting by people who have nothing better to do. Try not to take any of it personally. Equating one’s work with one’s self-worth is always a mistake.

    Two thumbs-up and a sale out of 4 responses is excellent, I’d say– yeeesss!!!

    As for first lines, I agree with Carrie: write the book first, worry about tweaking things later.

    Again, great post, and I enjoyed the 100 Best Opening Lines site, too! : )

    • Thank you so much, Mark, for taking time from your day to post some words of encouragement for me. You are very kind. My head knows not to take things personally, but my heart isn’t always on board. I will not equate my self-worth with my work. 🙂 Thank you. Glad you enjoyed the 100 Best Opening Lines.

  10. Fun post. Loved reading all the first lines. Yours sounds good. I usually have to read a couple pages before I decide if I’m into a book…and weird to say, but some of my favorite books haven’t grabbed me until several chapters in; I don’t know if that was a flaw with me or the author. Sometimes I’m just in a cruddy mood and it takes a while for me to get interested in new characters. But I agree, with the short attention span more and more readers are getting in today’s fast paced world, first sentences and paragraphs are vital to hook readers. But don’t stop there. I’ve been disappointed in some great starting books that went downhill after that.

    • Thank you, Char. I appreciate your comments. It does seem like more and more people want action and a fast pace in the books they read now. I’m old fashioned in that I just want to read and see where the story goes. … I just saw Ginger (adorable!), cookies, candy, and SPAM. I’m in!! 🙂

      • Books have changed a lot over the years. When I read old classics, I do find that I’m impatient with all the wording (but they didn’t have TV’s back in the 1800s, so words were their entertainment). I tend to like the middle ground. I hate books that are too short and don’t develop characters enough, but I don’t want every scene or character’s thought described for a page before the action gets going either

  11. Grrrr! You’re not showing up in my reader anymore. I had to actually come looking for this post–which was totally worth it by the way! I’m so glad you’re getting good feedback on your book and as always, your informative posts are always appreciated. Thanks for another good read. I must un-follow and re-follow you now so I don’t miss anymore of your posts.

      • And why wouldn’t they? You and I could cause some serious trouble if left unsupervised. Especially if we happen upon a few boxes of nails and a case of plastic explosives. And Jello. No nail bomb is complete without Jello.

  12. In college, I tried to begin a story with a cliche and was torn apart. That’s all I know. I like your first sentences. I think a first sentence can easily grab and shouldn’t be so long as those other ones.

    • I agree. I know I need to learn more about writing, but it seems there are too many rules. I’m glad I just started writing and went with my instincts. Fluffy, fun stuff doesn’t need to follow the rules. Thanks, La La.

  13. You’re right about first sentences. I usually judge an unknown author/ book on the first few lines. Not fair really. Here’s one of mine:
    She sat on a staircase with a cigarette in one hand and a Johnny Walker straight up in the other.
    I’m sure you can tell it’s an old line as smoking is out in movies and novels these days.

    • That’s a great first line! Yes, you’re right, I haven’t given any thought to writing a smoking character in today’s climate. Everybody smoking would greatly add to word count though. 🙂

  14. Love this. I tend to think openings are way more important than the first initial line. (Your first few paragraphs or so) but that’s just my opinion. Truth is, every writer is different. We all have different styles.
    P.S. You won me over with that Snoopy picture. I have a weak-spot in my heart for Snoopy. I suddenly become 5years old again everytime I hear “Linus & Lucy“.
    🙂

    • I know! Me, too! On the Snoopy thing. 🙂 And it’s time to watch It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown – which I do every year. I agree with openings needing to be better than first lines. In all my years of reading, I’ve always given a book more of a chance than the opening. I think a great opening is good to have, but I’m not convinced it will break a book if there isn’t one. Yes, you hit it on the head – there are different styles. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

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