Is the first sentence the charm?

We’ve all been told that we have only a couple of pages to hook a reader. I think that’s wrong. I think the hook comes in the first page. The first paragraph. The first sentence.

Last weekend, I was at a workshop devoted to the first 100 words of a novel. That’s right – 100 WORDS.

I think that first paragraph can hook a reader not just into one book – but into an author’s storytelling and writing style. One sentence can turn a first time reader into a lifelong fan. It has happened to this reader – more than once.

I remember my first encounter with the great Mary Stewart. I was about thirteen and dreaming of escaping small town Australia to have adventures in the big wide world.

How outdated the cover seems now - the writing dates too, but it's good enough to overcome that.

How outdated the cover seems now – the writing dates too, but it’s good enough to overcome that.

I opened a battered second hand copy of The Moonspinners.

It was the egret flying out of the lemon grove that started it.

Everything about that sentence is wrong – Any writing tutor (myself included) would tell you never start a book with a passive sentence. And certainly not with ‘It was..

But there was something about this opening line that spoke to me. I could see the bird flying low over the lemon grove. I could smell the fruit and feel the sun. My mind’s eye watched the bird fly past and wanted to go with it.

I could no more have put that book down that fly with the egret.

From that first line, I was an avid fan of Ms Stewart. I had read and re-read her books – and she has never let me down.

Of course, that’s important too. A really great opening line has to be the beginning of a great book. And I’ve usually found that it is.

In the first place I suppose it was my parents’ fault for giving me a silly name like Gianetta.Wildfire at Midnight – also by Mary Stewart. Another line that beaks rules but totally works.

Of course – she’s not alone in writing great first lines. So many books call to me from the bookshelf…

Last Night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.  Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

Another of the world's best opening lines - and a book I have re-read a dozen times.

Another of the world’s best opening lines – and a book I have re-read a dozen times.

To begin at the beginning: It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black.Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas.

Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin.Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.1984 by George Orwell.

It was the day my grandmother exploded. The Crow Road by Iain M. Banks,

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit – I really don’t have to tell you who that was, do I?

OK – I’ll stop now, but my point is this…

These lines transport me instantly to that other time and place – and whether it’s a child’s mind or a dystopian nightmare, I am instantly caught up in the story. My mind and heart are opened to whatever the writer want to tell me next. And it doesn’t matter that I have read the book before, or read it ten times before – the magic never fades.

Writing styles, like fashion, change over time. But a good opening line never fades.

Have you even sat up all night just reading the first lines of all your favorite books? I tried. I really did – but who could possibly read…

I suppose that my mother could have been a witch if she had chosen to…

or

Not every King would care to start his reign with the wholesale massacre of children.

… and then close the book? (Yes – they are both Mary Stewart again.)

I just went back and looked at the opening line of my next Coorah Creek book (due for release in June).

The huge yellow machine inched forward on wheels that were twice the height of the watching men.

Hmmmm…. Not quite to Mary Stewart’s standard, but then she set the bar pretty high. I start edits on the book soon. You never know, by the time you see it, it may just keep you up all night reading, as Mary Stewart did to me so many times.

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37 thoughts on “Is the first sentence the charm?

  1. I have always been a passionate reader but at the end of high school, my elder sister was one step above a functional illiterate. I constantly threw books at her to read. The Moonspinners is the one that hooked her into lifetime of reading. It is also one of my favorite books from a favorite author. Thanks to that book my sister now reads as well as me. My copy of the book was damaged in moving. Can anyone send me the rest of the paragragh?

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  2. I must admit, I am not an avid reader. Perhaps it is because once I begin a book, I don’t want to put it down! But it does and then life happens and, sadly, it’s a long time before I pick the book back up. I am working to remedy this problem, hoping that once I complete my graduate degree, I can once again enjoy reading for pleasure. I said all that to this: all of my favorite books are children’s books! My most favorite is Judith Voirst’s Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. The opening line? 62 words and 3 problems. Oh, and of course, the story’s first of the repeated line.

    I agree, the best author’s are the ones whose first line captivate you so much that your mind somehow realizes you’ve already read 4 pages in the bookstore…buying it.

    Thank you for sharing this. I think this would make a good exercise, writing opening lines to stories.

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  3. HA! I love, “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” I SO want to read that book, now.
    The only first line I can (begin) to quote is from A Tale of Two Cities but I found reading the whole book a bit of a slog. (Sentences were extraordinarily long, but it is a great story.)
    Of course, the important thing is that no matter how super the first lines are – the rest of the book has to stand up, too.
    Thanks for an interesting blog, Janet.
    Rosie x

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is a fab opening line, isn’t it Rosie.
      A Tale of Two Cites is hard work… as you say, a lot of very long sentences, including the first one. People tend to think of it as just the best of times and the worst of times – but it does go on at some length after that.
      Glad you enjoyed the post.

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  4. Thanks for a fascinating post. It made me go back to our three published books and take a look at the opening line. Number 1 didn’t make the grade. The opening lines of Numbers 2 and 3 did better. Great idea for a new post for us and a reblogging of this post.

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      • Me too…it’s years since I read MS, and it will be interesting to do so again and see if they have the same effect on me. As for opening lines, The Crow Road stands out for me – no least of all because the tv adaption starred the adorable Joe McFadden who inspired Beneath an Irish Sky.

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  5. I’m with Kate about the Towers of Trebizond. BUT I’ve read an awful lot of terrific first lines that are the best thing in the book. I may be out of step – a first line can be a hook but I’ll always read on beyond it, for at least a page, before I decide.
    If I’m in a bookshop I always skim a bit in the middle too.

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  6. Mary Stewart was the first author to “broaden my reading horizons” from the usual selection of westerns, whodunits and duzzieshaggers for blokes some 40 years ago.
    I found myself on a ship with almost NO reading material, but among the few books on board was a copy of Mary Stewart’s Touch Not The Cat. I read this and found myself hooked. She has (or had) a lovely lyrical style.
    Since then, I’ve read quite a few of hers, especially the Merlin books. Magical!!

    She is absolutely right re first lines! some great examples in Janet’s post. You’ce got to get off the mark with the “B in Bang!”

    *rushes off to revise first page*

    John

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  7. I’ve not read all of Mary Stewart’s books, but I’ve read a fair few. My favourite author is Dorothy Dunnet and the first line of her first book of the Lyman Saga (6 books) had me hooked despite it’s brevity.
    ‘Lyman is back.’
    I had to know who was Lyman and why was he back.

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  8. Mary Stewart was the author who got me to widen my reading interests!
    Back in the day, when – like most blokes of my age and times, my main reading interests were westerns, whodunits and duzzieshaggers, I was stuck on a ship with almost NO books whatsoever.
    One of the few books available was Mary Stewart’s Touch Not The Cat. I really enjoyed it, and have read several of her others since. A lovely lyrical style of writing – and, as you say, some classic first lines.

    *runs off to redraft opening chapter*

    John

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I love that first line of The Crow Road, too. One of my favourite opening lines is in Margaret Elphinstone’s novel Hy Brasil. ‘I would hate to have to choose, but I think I’d rather have travelling than sex.’
    Great post, Janet.

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  10. Loved this post – and definitely going to take more care with my first lines from now on 🙂 Was having a look, and how about this from Narnia to add to your collection: “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”

    Liked by 3 people

  11. Love this post Janet – and Mary Stewart doesn’t get nearly enough on-line mentions. One personal favourite opener though was “After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn’s for an oyster supper” from Michael Cox’s The Meaning Of Night…

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