Does the first sentence matter?

Over the years I’ve seen multiple how-to articles insisting that having a terrific first sentence is vitally important to your book. People will pick up your book, look at the first line — the first paragraph if you’re lucky — and if it’s not compelling, they’ll put it back down.

I’ve always been baffled by this. I can see it might be a factor when pitching to editors or agents, but readers? By the time I look at the first line I’ve read the back of the book or the flyleaf so I already know if it interests me. I’m unlikely to let the first line repel me unless it’s really bad or stupid. If it’s merely dull, I’ll keep reading.

And I rarely see an opening line that is, in fact, compelling, unless it’s ludicrously over the top. There’s an old writing joke that the perfect opening line is “Take your hand off my thigh,’ the Duchess said to the Emir, who’d bribed the attendants on the Concorde (you can tell it’s an old joke by that reference]. Today we’d be doing some billionaire’s space flight) for a seat next to hers.” Royalty, aristocracy, sex, corruption, wrongdoing and conflict, all in a glamorous setting (the Concorde, a supersonic passenger flight, was very glamorous back in the day). And way, way too much.

On the other hand, I’ve seen a fair number of people talking about books online say that yes, if the opening doesn’t grip them, they’ll put the book down. So obviously it happens. Certainly I’ll do the same with the back of the book: any fantasy novel that focuses on the history (“For centuries the H’san had lived at peace with their neighbors, but then the Dark Conqueror had almost driven the entire nation into the sea. Five decades later …”) rather than a character. But if I I like it enough to read the story itself, I’ll go for at least a couple of pages before giving up. And it’s more likely plot or premise that turns me off rather than language.

A really great opening can convince me to pick up a book I’d otherwise ignore. Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone opens with the narrator describing, in detail, the day her family got their first TV in the late 1960s. Except she doesn’t believe her memories because she remembers the deliverymen being President Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon. It’s clever enough to keep me going, even though it wasn’t my sort of novel.

So obviously there’s merit in a good opening but a brilliant opening line? Am in the majority in not sweating it? Or do most people judge by first lines?

Lacking in-depth statistical polling, I shall never know.

#SFWApro. Don’t know the cover artist (but I like it); all rights to image remain with current holder.

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Filed under Reading, Writing

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