How much time do you have as a reader? How much time are you willing to give to a writer to grab your attention, to make you trust that they have something you want or need to hear? How much time do you have as a reader to invest in a writer when you don’t know anything about them? How much time do you have to research a new writer, to look for them on Twitter, Facebook, to find their books on Amazon, Smashwords?
How much time as a writer do I have to meet your needs? How quickly do I have to “get to the point”? How many sentences will you give me to tell my tale and spark your interest?
The first few sentences are CRUCIAL, obviously. In my writing courses, I teach students that they have to make a positive first impression, establish themselves as an authority/expert, and create a bond of trust with their readers. That’s a lot of pressure on an introduction, but it’s accurate. When I’m the writer, I want to grab you and never let go until the book is finished, and then, selfishly, I don’t want to let go of you then. I want you looking for more.
If I’m the reader, my expectations for first lines are very high. I look at Faulkner, O’Connor, Fannie Flagg, Poe, Chopin.
I read these first lines, and I am hooked:
Call me Ishmael. – Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. – George Orwell, 1984 (1949)
You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885)
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. – J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. – James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)
All this happened, more or less. – Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. – Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)
It was a pleasure to burn. – Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)