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Friday, January 10, 2014


By Ashley Kath-Bilsky

If a picture is worth a thousand words, how much are the first words you read in a book worth to you? How much importance do you hold on the opening line of a book? The first paragraph? The first page?

In this day and age when more and more people are purchasing books from online booksellers, I often wonder what is the motivating factor for readers to purchase a book? Provided it is not an author they are already familiar with and whose work they enjoy reading, what compels someone to purchase a new book from an unknown author?

Is it the cover? The genre? The blurb, or brief description written about the book’s premise? The reviews posted by other readers? No doubt, one or all of the above might play a collective role to influence someone to buy a book. Then there is the fact that many readers purchase books based on the recommendations of friends and family. Others faithfully follow the New York Times Bestsellers List or are influenced by a slick full-page ad in a national magazine.

As a reader, I gravitate toward specific genres. And I'll be honest; if a cover catches my eye, I will examine it and even admire it. Still, I have long believed in the old saying, "Don't judge a book by its cover."

Despite the increasingly popular trend of online shopping and e-books (most of which cost substantially less than the print version of the same title, and which can download within seconds onto hand-held electronic devices), there are many readers who still prefer to visit a bookstore, and to hold an actual book in their hands before they buy it. These rather old-fashioned book buyers (like me) often adhere to a special system or criteria they have followed for years when deciding whether or not to purchase a specific book. And the mainstay of my criteria -- believe it or not -- remains reading that first line.

[Photo Credit: gary yim /]

For me, it is like sitting in a beautiful theatre waiting expectantly for the play to start. When the heavy velvet curtain gracefully rises on invisible strings, the audience gets their first glimpse of the stage, and when the first line is spoken or the first action takes place, the adventure begins.

In fiction, an author creates the scene, the character(s), the emotion, action, tension, plot elements, and dialogue. Granted, it would be impossible to convey all of this in the opening line of the book, but that line will (if done correctly) entice the reader and give them the 'story's promise'.

Ultimately, it isn't just the genre, the cover, advertisement, or the premise of a book that intrigues me – it’s the writing. I want to get a feel for the writer’s voice, their pacing and their craftsmanship. A cover isn’t going to tell me this, and neither is an ad or the blurb on the back of the book. Reviews are just one person's opinion, and I try not to be influenced or biased based on them. There are books I love that other people don't, and vice versa. And although some people may place little importance on the first line of a book, for some reason – I still do.

For many people, the first line in a book has such an impact, it has never been forgotten.

I can still remember when my mother gifted me with a leather-bound collector’s edition of REBECCA by Daphne du Maurier on my 12th birthday. A voracious reader who loved books, I held the grown-up novel in my hands, admired the beautiful leather binding, then opened the book to carefully pull back each pristine page until I could read the first line of this book.

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” ~ Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938)

This first line did not tell me the name or anything about the character speaking. It did not describe where this person was, or even the time period in which the book took place. However, it was a compelling opening and immediately captivated my interest. I wanted to know more about this mysterious Manderley.

Some authors write very fast-paced, especially in suspense thrillers, and can capture the reader’s attention and imagination with very few words.

“It was a bright, cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.” ~ 1984 by George Orwell (1949)

Others write with an elegant, almost lyrical, descriptive style, very often found in classic literature and today’s historical fiction.

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

Some books may open with a line of dialogue or an internal thought in a specific character’s point of view, such as:

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages shall show.” ~ David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (1850)

“I am an invisible man.” ~ The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1952)

Some may open with a long first line, the dreaded run-on sentence that your English teacher scolded you about, and yet Charlea Dickens conveys so much with this opening and hooks the reader.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” ~ A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (1859)

As a writer, I often struggle with the first line of a book. I cannot say how many times I have opened with a descriptive line of narrative that I absolutely loved, then switched to a simple line of dialogue. Although they will not likely be memorized by a reader, I hope my first lines capture the reader’s attention, curiosity, and beckon them to take an adventure within the pages of my book.

From the first line, to the first paragraph, and every line of narrative and dialogue that the writer sets within the pages of their book, each word should count...right from the start. For me, the first line is a promise to the reader, and promises must always be kept.

Thanks for stopping by today. I would love to know what influences you to purchase a book. And if you have a favorite first line of a beloved book, please share it with me. ~ AKB


  1. I enjoyed your post. It's a combination of things for me. The cover catches my attention. The blurb grabs my interest and compels me to purchase the book. But it is the opening line of the book that usually pulls me into the story. Many times I find that whether or not the first line grabs my attention is a good indicator of whether or not I will enjoy the book.

    1. Hi Vatonia, and thank you for your comment. I agree with you that the first line is usually an indicator about the entire book, and if I will like it. The writer's voice and style of crafting a story is a great revelation to me, and always makes me want to read more of their work.

  2. Replies
    1. Thank you very much, Ella. And thank you for the tweet, too. :)

  3. I've seldom been hooked by a first line in a book or even a first page. These days, I usually start reading pages later in the book. ..... Also, the cover has not often been a deciding factor for me. I do admire beautiful covers, but mostly for their art and design, not for what they might tell me about the story. I lost confidence in covers after seeing the way publishers approach them. They place little value on the cover being related to what's between the pages. They follow trends of what's selling at the moment. Now that I'm responsible for my own cover designs, I try to come up with something that's both provocative and indicative of what the book is about. Sometimes I've gotten it right and sometimes I haven't.

    It's getting harder to select a book to read. You can't go by the bestselling list at Amazon anymore because a "free" book or a 99-cent book will overshadow a good book that cost more money. These days, I pretty much rely on reviews. I buy books mostly from Amazon, so I look at the chart to see the ratio between the stars. If there are 1-star reviews, I go to them first. Unless those reviews are just mean-spirited, which is usually obvious, they tell the story's flaws from that reviewer's perspective. From that, I decide if I want to try the book. I'm not influenced by all of the fluff in the 5-star reviews.

    So bottom line, the opening words just don't mean much to me. I do appreciate, however, that the first line is hard to write. In almost every book, I've revised the first line a dozen times and even gone to print with one that I was uncertain of. I wonder if that has happened with all of those old classic authors. :-)

  4. Hi Jeffery - Thank you for your comment, and sharing your perspective.

  5. Excellent post, Ashley. In a bookstore, the cover catches my eye first. then I check out the blurb. When shopping online, I also check out the one star reviews. Like you, I discount too many five stars. My favorite opening line is from Gone With the Wind: "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were."

    1. Hi Callie - Love your first line choice from Gone With The Wind. Publishing has changed so dramatically that as Jeffrey McClanahan pointed out even NYT Best-Selling lists are no longer "necessarily" reflective of an excellent book with wonderful writing, and many writers and publishers are finding ways to circumvent the system to make the list. As a result, the list doesn't carry the prestige to me it once did in terms of story and writing quality. Sounds like you shop like me in a book store. For online shopping, I like how Amazon lets you look inside the book to check out the writing and see if the book triggers your interest. Thanks for commenting. :)

  6. Good post! All you say is so true about how a reader finds a book. And first lines are one way to grab their attention. And what one line grabs one person may not grab the next. It is all so hit and miss. But so fun to try and figure out.

    1. Thanks, Paty. It is fascinating to find out what makes a reader buy a certain book. I would also like to survey readers about what they like and don't like in romance fiction, especially since a book can have elements of other genres in it, ie paranormal, mystery, fantasy, etc. The envelope is being pushed daily. Writing and publishing is an ever-changing industry.

  7. Very interesting post! Seldom does the cover "do it for me". Usually the first line, or Amazon's peek into a book will do it for me. Even though I post reviews, I seldom look at them to decide if I am going to purchase a book or not. I understand that not everyone likes the same books, therefore, I decide for myself!

    1. Thank you for your input, Karen. I really appreciate it. I am happy to learn others (like me) still want to look inside a book at the writing and crafting of the story to decide for themselves if they want to add it to their library.

  8. I'm late, I'm late for a very important blog! :) First lines are extremely important, as you've so well illustrated with the examples, Ashley. Thank you for reminding us of that.

    1. Thank you, Lyn. I am happy you enjoyed the post today. I know how busy you are, and I appreciate the comment. .


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