Tag Archives: first lines

First Lines, Hooks, and Asking Too Much of Ten Words

First lines are the mules of literature these days—they do the heaviest lifting in a given book, needing to “hook” the reader into reading more. Writers, I’ve been told, need to show the characters, the overall context for the story, at least a glimpse of the story’s novelty, and the conflict that will drive the plot. That’s a ton of work for the start line of any marathon. Come to think of it, real starting lines only mark a space. First sentences in fiction mark well more than the small area they occupy. Blog after writing blog expresses concern for writers who send in the first several pages of their manuscript—are there enough motivators for readers right at the outset? One conference I attended had a “first page review” with a panel of agents and editors, and more often than not, the industry experts laughed at the submissions presented to them. Surely there were a few ugly dogs among the contenders, but even so, one mere sentence that is supposed to stand above all others is a precariously high bar, and it’s something that feels (to me) less about art or creative integrity to the piece, and much more about marketing standards and focus group data. Consider the following first sentences:

  • Call me Ishmael.
  • It was like so, but wasn’t.
  • All this happened, more or less.

Yes, I picked openings that set up the narrator (Moby Dick, Galatea 2.2, and Slaughterhouse-Five, respectively). Do they say enough as a discrete sentence? I may be a more generous reader than average, but I’m willing to stick with a text past the first 50-300 characters or 5-30 words. (Robinson Crusoe starts off with a 50+ sentence, by the way.) Some ideas may work better with a little set up and delivery. Read More…

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