First Lines: Dispelling the Myth

Monday, May 1, 2017

It’s a commonly held belief that first lines sell books, but it’s a myth.

First lines don’t sell books. Good writing sells books.

I’m not arguing that first lines aren’t important. Of course they are. But a good first line is not enough if the writing that follows is weak.

Even so, the first line is one of the most crucial parts of the book. I spend hours trying to come up with the right first line and am never satisfied. As a writer, I’m not the best person to tell you how to craft one. But as a reader, I know what captures me and what doesn’t. So in this post and the ones that follow, I’ll give you my thoughts as a reader.

Technically, “line” and “sentence” are not synonyms, but that’s how most writers use them when talking about opening lines. I will do the same and use them interchangeably to mean “sentence.”

Every article or blog post or lecture on writing the opening line starts by stating that the purpose of that line is to hook the reader and make him or her want to read on. Most also acknowledge that it isn’t quite that simple. You also need to clue the reader in to the style of the book and provide information on characters and settings. Very few authors and books can do that in one sentence or even one paragraph. So yes, start strong. But the first line doesn’t stand alone.

In my experience, there are five main types of effective openings. They are:

·       Starting with a bang (e.g., the car chase opening);

·       Introducing an intriguing character;

·       Foreshadowing;

·       Raising questions in the reader’s mind; and

·       Telling the whole story.

Each approach has pitfalls, and none works in all instances. A good writer will match the opening to the story. So how does he or she do that?

Stay tuned.

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