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Friday, 7 August 2015

First Lines - fab or failure - from Jenny Harrison

First lines that capture the reader – or do they?

We writers know the first couple of lines of our book are going to either capture the reader or cause them to put the book back on the shelf. We spend time polishing, honing and agonising over those first few words and sentences, making sure there’s a splendid hook to lure the reader in.

I have a few favourites I’d like to share with you. And also a few that don’t particularly grab me but perhaps are supposed to.

Herman Melville starts Moby Dick with, ‘Call me Ishmael.’ Now, would you actually want to go on reading? Do you actually care? No, probably not.

Here’s one that is captivating and you will probably want to read on. ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ It’s from George Orwell’s sinister and prophetic 1984.

 And the one we’re always warned about; ‘It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals….’ That’s the beginning of Paul Clifford by Edward George Bulwer. These words have become synonymous with bad writing. There’s even an annual prize for the worst possible first lines called the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest  (

I went to my personal book shelves and took out random books to see what modern writers do with their first lines. Working on the premise that today a reader wants instant gratification, the first lines have to be smart, edgy, quirky, curious – all of those but most important – inviting. Derek Hansen starts Sole Survivor with, ‘Red O’Hara woke at first light convinced that he should be dead and ashamed that he wasn’t.’ Now, there’s a book you’d want to read.

Peter Straub’s Ghost Story begins, ‘What was the worst thing you’ve ever done? I won’t tell you that, but I’ll tell you the worst thing that ever happened to me … the most dreadful thing …” I can’t wait to read it!

Bev Robitai’s Sunstrike begins – ‘The sudden utter silence made me realise something was wrong’. I have to read on. What was wrong? Why was the world suddenly so silent?

My own The Falling of Shadows begins, ‘I was used to seeing ghosts.’ If you enjoy a paranormal, supernatural book then you’ll go on reading. If you think it’s all a lot of baloney that first sentence will put you off. I do hope, however, that you’d want to know what happens to a girl who sees ghosts.

Sometimes the first lines are great but what follows is not that good. I loved D R Meredith’s opening line of her Murder by the Book; ‘Sacrificing virgins isn’t common practice anymore.’, the book not so much.

It pays to spend some time rewriting your first couple of sentences. In this day of text messaging and one-minute noodles, readers are more likely to stick with your book if the first few lines are totally engrossing.

After all, who wouldn’t want to go on reading Wally Lamb’s The Hour I First Believed, his novel about the Columbine High School massacre that begins like this, ‘They were both working their final shift at Blackjack Pizza that night, although nobody but the two of them realized it was that. Give them this much; they were talented secret-keepers.’

 Jenny Harrison

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