The Power of a Great First Line


Today, everything must move in a blur. Downloads can’t be fast, they need to be instantaneous. Calling friends on the cell takes too long and is so yesterday. Just text them. If they care, they’ll text back. If it can’t be squeezed into a tweet, it isn’t worth sharing. And don’t get me started on Tik-Tok. The average view is 13 seconds! Really? Tik-tok-ers have just a few seconds to catch viewers’ eyes… or else they’ll be swiping on to the next one.
I’m not sure who’s to blame, but that’s the reality.
The same principle applies to books today. Of course, it has always been that way, kind of. The saying “Don’t judge a book by the cover” mostly does not apply. Many readers do exactly that. “Oh, that cover looks interesting. I’ll check it out the first few pages.” Of course, now the cover is likely a digital image and the first few pages are from the sample on Amazon.
And that’s not really new. It’s just the current version of strolling through our favorite bookstore, browsing the books on the shelves and checking out a few pages of those that look interesting.
But, with today’s sped up world, with the thirst for instantaneous gratification, authors need to realize readers may likely not browse the first few pages. More likely, they will check out the first page… or maybe the opening paragraph… or even just the first sentence.
But, even this is not that new. For centuries, readers have sampled the first sentences of a writer in much the same way they would taste a spoonful of soup to judge its flavor. If the soup was too salty or too spicy or too thin, it would be evident in the first few sips. For centuries, readers have had much the same approach to novels… and great writers understood this.
Even Charles Dickens—who got paid by the word, remember—recognized that he needed to hook his readers within the first few sentences. His opening lines to "A Tale of Two Cities" are some of the most famous first lines in literature.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.”
Jane Austen, who was writing for a very different audience, understood this point, as well. Her most famous work, "Pride and Prejudice", continues to win fans 200 years after it was first published, and in fact, has fueled an entire genre of Regency novels. Even she knew she needed to hook her readers right from the start.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
Some of today’s best and most successful authors recognized this truth. They craft opening sentences and paragraphs designed to make readers want more, to feel the need to keep reading. As I’ve read great writers, I’m always struck by the power and pull of the opening of their novels.
Take Tom Clancy, the insurance agent who became the most successful Techno-Thriller author of the ‘80’s and ‘90s. This is the opening line from "Patriot Games", the second in his Jack Ryan series.

Read the entire article in the October 2022 issue of InD'Tale magazine.

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