F is for the first line of books and its importance (or otherwise)

Author: Anne

Date Published: Jun 10th 2017, 8:32pm

I first wrote this blog about a year ago and it still holds true - I am still just about to write that blog on prologues !


It is a truth universally acknowledged that any discussion about the first lines of novels will include a quotation from Jane Austen – and there it is. The first line of “Pride and Prejudice” is probably recognised by more people than have read the book and the same applies to other well known first lines. Every Christmas there are an abundance of literary quizzes which often include one requiring you to identify the first line of well known novels and I am very good at this despite not having read many of the books from which the quotations are taken.

The first line of a book is the first time that an author has to get you hooked – certainly, if we extend that to the first paragraph. I am not saying that I would abandon the book after just a few lines except in very unusual circumstances (extremely foul language or gratuitous cruelty for example) but it rather sets the tone for what I expect from the rest of the book. It isn’t absolutely vital to my engagement with the whole book but it is important.

Authors start their books in many different ways and I can’t say that I really admire one rather than another and nor do I dislike any method in general. I do think, however, that the first line(s) should be typical of the book as a whole and not, for example, feature characters which aren’t mentioned again or who are not vital to the story. Some books have experimental type openings maybe involving the character having a vision or a dream – these have to get to the point very quickly otherwise I will put them down as soon as possible because I am not comfortable with a book where I really don’t know what it happening or what is real from the start.

Books that cover a large span in time, especially of one person’s life, often start with their beginnings (a tradition which is nicely countered in “Catcher in the Rye” by JD Salinger). Sometimes authors confound the expectations by starting with their character’s death or an important landmark in their lives. Writing this way leads you to expect a long saga which is more or less chronological – of course, the author may then choose to play with that expectation in the pages that follow/

I particularly enjoy books that start in the middle of the action, and then explain what is happening later. If the author gets this right I am hooked for the action scene and then eagerly awaiting the explanation. Pacing is important here because I am liable to give up if I don’t know what is happening or can’t follow the story easily.

Some books begin with a quirky sentence deliberately designed to attract your attention (see “Nineteen Eighty Four” by George Orwell for a great one). It tends to be these ones which form the basis of the first line quizzes of which there are many on the Internet. This works providing that the sentence is representative of the rest of the book and if it is put into context quickly. Sometimes, sadly, the first quirky sentence or paragraph is the best thing in the whole book.

There are lots of websites listing interesting first lines as well as all those quizzes I mentioned. It is interesting to look at them and see how many you noticed when you read the book. Although the start of a book is important and colours the way in which I see the rest of the story it is only a small percentage of the book as a whole and I am far less likely to abandon the book because of its beginning than I am because of other factors such as the plot and characterisation.

On occasion, of course, the first line of a book is not actually the first line because of the prologue – the reason for the impact of prologues will be the subject of a blog for the future