by Meredith Cole
When I was a kid, we used to play a game with the first and last lines of books. We would take a book off the shelf (my parents had a big living room that was covered with book shelves, so this wasn’t as easy as it might sound) and read aloud the line. The rest of us had to guess what book it was from. I think this has, like many of the other games of my childhood, now been turned into a board game that you can buy. But I digress…
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
How could that line be anything but Jane Austen? And it sums up the times, the society and really the whole book so perfectly.
The game was fun because it rewarded you for being a book worm (which I was). And it was amazing how much of the flavor of a book went into a good first line. Hearing some of them gave me the feeling of visiting an old friend.
Yes, the first line is important. It should intrigue. It should start your book as you mean to go on. But it’s not everything. It doesn’t stand alone. While “Call me Ishmael” is a recognizable line, it isn’t all of Moby Dick. Nor should it be. A wonderful line should lead you to want to read the second line and then the next and the next. So it’s worth revising and examining to make sure it’s as good as you can make it.
But is the first line as important as cover art or good reviews or great jacket copy? I don’t know. Each one has a chance to hook the reader and hopefully does. But the book itself must be great to keep a reader’s interest. And I would argue that no one would remember any of the great first lines if the books hadn’t enthralled thousands of readers.