The dreaded first line

Apparently, the very first sentence of a book has to be instantly gripping.

In a fit of frustration, I took down these first books and read the opening lines. These are the beginnings of successful series.

It is said, in Imardin, that the wind has a soul, and that it wails through the narrow city streets because it is grieved by what it finds there. –Trudi Canavan, The Black Magician Triolgy book one.

Immediately gripping? No. Instantly hooked? Not really. The feeling that I absolutely HAD to read more? Not really. Memorable? No.

What this first line does is set the scene. From it I know that I’m not about to read a book set in our world, that it’s most likely set in a city, that the city is old and higgledy-piggledy, and that it probably has crime and lowlifes and poverty. It’s not a clean city with sky-scrapers. I could go on, but already I’ve used more words than were in that line to say what I got from it.

The first book is like a long beginning. I read it eagerly. I trusted the author, I knew that something terrific was in store. And I was right.

Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.-Phillip Pullman, His Dark Materials, Northern Lights.

The first time I read this line I was eleven. My first thought was an eleven-year old’s equivalent of ‘…wtf?’ One year later, I reread that first line and all subsequent lines in the trilogy. I cried at the end of a book for the first time. I’ve read the books many times since.

Looking back, what I missed eleven years ago was that a girl and some manner of creature were sneaking about in a building large enough to warrant the capitalisation of the ‘h’ in hall. I think I saw ‘deamon’ with Siamese letters and fled.

Wind howled through the night, carrying a scent that would change the world(Prologue)

Eragon knelt in a bed of trampled reed grass and scanned the tracks with a practiced eye. –Christopher Paolini, Inheritance book one, Eragon.

I remember reading the prologue and thinking ‘hrmmm, ok…Not really telling me much of anything.’ I kept reading because hey, I like reading. The book was in my hands and I was not going to give up on it based on the first line. To be honest, I mostly enjoyed the books because of Arya-the main character’s Elvin love interest. There are definitely sections I skim on rereads. (Yes, I read books more than once.) But I’m glad I didn’t put it down.

When Mr.Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of specialmagnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton. (I ignored the prologue) –JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings.

Well, one of Tolkien’s shorter, less confusing, sentences to be sure. The amount of times I battled to the end of a sentence only to find I’d forgotten the beginning of it…

But this first line does accomplish some things. I knew Bilbo wasn’t human, that Hobbiton was a small, gossiping place, and that it wasn’t set in our world. Not an instantly gripping first line though. Glad I battled through? Yes.

It happened every year, was almost a ritual(Prologue)

The trial was irretrievably over; everything that could be said had been said, but he had never doubted that he would lose. Steig Larsson, Millennium I, The Girl with the Dragon tattoo.

Considering that I felt compelled to commit the crime of skimming on the first read of a book; a crime I had never committed, or wanted to commit, before, these lines aren’t too bad. Not very good either. But I did keep reading, mostly favouring Lisbeth’s parts.


I was not instantly enthralled by any of these first lines. So, what fuels this popular ‘rule’ that your first line must be gripping, fascinating, grab-you-by-the-throat-and-hold-on-until-you-reach-the-last-line-ing? And it’s not just the first line. Ideally your first chapter should be made of clinging hands and sharp, glinting hooks. (At the same time, I’ve been told to set the scene of the main character’s ordinary live before the big events come along and screw it up. Curious…)

I think of an agent sitting at a desk. Precarious piles of paper mimic sky-scrapers in their office. More cyber-piles wait in their email inbox.  They have a headache. Serious eye-strain.

They’re thinking back to their love of books as a child and wondering where it all went wrong.

They’re holding on to the hope that somewhere in those towering piles waits the beginning of a book that will swell their heart and command their imagination.

They long to find it.

It would revive them; resort their faith in supposed writers’ ability to string words together. But they’re tired. They want to find it quickly. They want the wannabe-published authors to give it to them, and it to them fast. Faster than fast-straight away in fact.

The annoying thing about it is it’s perfectly understandable. And I do understand. But I can’t give my series that type of first line. I’m not writing a single, stand-alone novel. This is one giant story, spread over multiple books. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. I’m not running my fastest at the very start.


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