Friday, May 13, 2011

Grabbing Your Reader’s Attention: Your First Line

Not long ago I entered the first page of my novel, BLACKHEART, in a “One Page” contest. The rules were simple: submit the first page of your manuscript (short story, novel, poem, whatever)—and I did exactly that. When contest winners for each category were announced I was somewhat crestfallen that the winner was not me. Dang. I thought my entry was pretty strong—although that’s probably what everyone else thought about their entries, too.

But really, in the first page of my book I introduce my main character(s) and put them in a creepy situation where somebody is going to end up dead by the end of the scene. There are bodies, lots of blood, SWAT, FBI and a scarred-up, mean, hulking son of bitch wielding a shotgun. I thought some of that might grab the judges’ attention. Apparently not. Back to the drawing board.

The winning entry in this contest for the genre fiction category was a piece about an imp dangling his feet in a lava pit. Written nicely enough and it stood out. Nobody else had an imp main character. The winner of another category had a lot of nudity that I’m sure would cause many a reader to read on. All good stuff, and I applaud the contest winners, but…

Entering this contest made me realize a few things:

  • Grabbing your readers’ attention on page 1 is critical.
  • More importantly, grabbing their attention on line 1 might matter even more.
  • On a personal note, I am revisiting my novel’s page 1 to see what can be improved on.
  • We live in a time of short attention spans. The Internet is rewiring our brains, we spend hours in front of computers, TV and video games, we’re busy, distracted, running about with too many things on our minds, and I need only point to Twitter as an example of how much time and space you get to try to capture someone’s attention. About a line’s worth of text.

So page 1 had better count. Scratch that—Line 1. Make it good. Make it sing. Make it memorable.

I’d like to say I’m better than that--that I’ll give any book 100 pages before I consider giving up on it, set it aside. (I know several people that use this rule when they start reading a book.) But the truth is when I shop for books in a bookstore (how old fashioned of me, I know) I pick up a book that catches my attention (from the title and cover—talk about shallow!) and turn to page one and start reading, or maybe even a random page elsewhere in the book. If I like the voice, the craft, if there is a hook that catches me, I may buy that book. But if after reading a few paragraphs or less I most likely will put it back if it hasn’t grabbed me.

Do first lines matter to literary agents? To quote one agent (who shall remain nameless, sorry agent) from Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, & Literary Agents:

Q: What’s the most effective ways for writers to grab your attention?

A: For fiction: Have a great first line that provides an immediate insight into your protagonist.

Good advice.

So just for fun, here are the first lines of some novels that you may have read or heard of (or perhaps, not). I’m curious, which of these entries makes you want to read more? Which of them stands out? Which of them makes you want to go get that book and find out what happens next? If you’re a writer, feel free to comment with your own first line. I’d like to hear it. Is it a line that will make me want to read more and not put it down?

Some Great (or are they?) First Lines

"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." --Tolkien, The Hobbit

"Many years later, as he stood facing the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice."-- Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 100 Years of Solitude

“Where's Papa going with that axe?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast. --E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web

“It was a dark and stormy night.” --Snoopy or Edward George Bulwer-Lytton

"Death was driving an emerald-green Lexus." -- Dean Koontz, Winter Moon

"Marley was dead: to begin with." -- Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

"We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold." -- Hunter Thompson, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas

"First of all it was October, a good month for boys." --Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes

"On the fifteenth of May, in the jungle of Nool, In the heat of the day, in the cool of the pool" --Dr. Seuss, Horton Hears A Who

"When Augustus came out on the porch the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake - not a very big one." --Lonesome Dove

“To burn down a farm house do the following: apply plenty of kerosene or lawn mower gas or rubbing alcohol or whatever other type of accelerant you have on hand; apply your lighter, stand back and wait for the screams.” --Mark Teats, Sunlight

"My name is Odd Thomas, through the years in this age when fame is the altar at which most people worship, I am not sure why you should care who I am or that I exist." -- Dean Koontz, Odd Thomas

“I am the vampire Lestat.” --Anne Rice, The Vampire Lestat

“I always get the shakes before a jump.” --Heinlein, Starship Troopers

“At a village of La Mancha, whose name I do not wish to remember, there lived a little while ago one of those gentlemen who are wont to keep a lance in the rack, an old buckler, a lean horse, and a swift greyhound.” --de Cervantes, Don Quixote

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” --Stephen King, The Dark Tower:

"Rage — Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles." --The Iliad by Homer

“All this happened, more or less.” --Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Slaughter House Five

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” --Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

“Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen it's true face.” --Watchmen, Alan Moore

"Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick." --Stephen King, The Shining

"In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, and old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul." --Dune by Frank Herbert

"I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one." --Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

“When he woke in the woods in the dark and the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.” --McCarthy, The Road

Lots more great first lines here:

Happy Writing.


Jon said...

Great blog, Mark. I'm very curious to read Sunshine.

My novel's first line goes: "The office used to belong to the school's principal, a man long since missing and most likely never to need it again

Mark Teats said...

Thanks, Jon.
Your first line is bugging me because I'm trying to remember the name of the missing man.... Gary? Is it Gary?

Jon said...

Gary Merchant

Lisa said...

Loved the blog. And yes, who is this Mark Teats author of Sunshine you speak of?

My opening:

"This is the story, as told by my grandmother, who was known to all as One Potato."

Doesn't take the advice of starting with the protagonist. Since my wip has three stories woven together, I have three opening lines. Here are the others:

"P Boy, Momo, and Tommy are rummaging through piles of rubble."

"Auntie Claire says I’m supposed to write about myself."

Hmm, seems like my protagonist start is the weakest of the bunch...

Jon said...

Those are great lines. I love One Potato

Mark Teats said...

Ah, Gary Merchant. That's it!
One Potato rocks.

Qlaudie said...

Great one, Mark!
I just opened up "Storm of Swords" - which happens to be in front of me. It's the 3rd book in Martin's Song of Ice and Fire Trilogy. Here's the line:
"The day was grey and bitter cold, and the dogs would not take the scent."
Good one.
And here's the first line from my book:
"Even without MacGreggor’s unconscious form sprawled diagonally across the floor, the secret chamber behind the bookcase wasn’t an ideal place to do one’s hair."
Funny how you really can get a feel for how different his book and mine are, tone, setting, voice - from the first line. Now let's hope mine ends up to be as popular as Martin's!

Jon said...

Are they really all that different? I mean, how much incest is in yours again?

Qlaudie said...

well, with time travel, there is always that danger - but at least then you'll be generations apart...

Aly said...

Love the blog...I remember my english teacher gave us a bunch of starter lines from books and ever since then I'd been focused on grabbing the reader from the first page. That's how I judge a book if the first line to me is boring I don't read it. Here's the first line for one of my books:
"I swear to you I didn't do anything this time, I swear on Ren's sacred pendant I didn't do anything...don't believe anyone else who says I did something. Well..I didn't do anything this time but don't think for a second that means I'm completely innocent."