This is part II of my last blog post, so if you’re just tuning in, go back and read it first! To review, we all know that the first pages of your novel are the most important when it comes to landing an agent. Often, their decision about whether to read the rest of the manuscript is made by the first page. So I decided to examine the first pages of some of my favorite novels and figure out how they grab my attention and hold it. No better way to learn than from the experts!
7. Sabriel by Garth Nix
First line: “It was little more than three miles from the Wall into the Old Kingdom, but that was enough.”
This curious line gives us a glimpse of the world which we are about to be immersed in. The rest of the first paragraph informs us that on one side of the Wall in Ancelstierre (not-England) it is noon and the sun is shining, but on the other side in the Old Kingdom, it is sunset and rain is falling. This unfamiliar fantasy world is being built even within the first line.
The above line belongs to the prologue of Sabriel. Prologues are tricky things. This one tells us the strange circumstances of Sabriel’s birth and introduces both her father, the Abhorsen (giving us the meaning of the title she will later take on), and an antagonist, Kerrigor. “Is this prologue necessary?” is a question we all must ask ourselves, and in this case, I think it does a good job of building suspense and holding attention while providing important background information.
8. Watership Down by Richard Adams
First line: “The primroses were over.”
Has there every been a more beautiful or subtle way to say “Something’s going down, guys”?
The genius of that first line is that it serves as a launching point for a description of the setting-- the rabbits’ original warren-- which is, naturally, full of plants and flowers and a brook and whatnot. In all the scenery, we forget that pretty-but-ominous first line for awhile, allowing ourselves to be lulled into the same peaceful complacency as the rabbits. The other great thing about that line is that it helps the novel come full circle, as the last line speaks of the primroses beginning to bloom.
9. Abarat by Clive Barker
First line: “The storm came up out of the southwest like a fiend, stalking its prey on legs of lightning.”
Barker’s command of language and imagery is one of the many things that keeps me coming back to his books. He has an imagination like no other and the ability to share what is in his mind in such a way that readers see it just as vividly. Can’t you already see the dark clouds roiling toward the characters?
The first page introduces us to three women in a boat, who suspect that the storm threatening them is unnatural and who have some “precious cargo.” Already, we have hints that something serious and probably magical is happening. There is palpable tension in the boat, both among the three women and between them and some unknown antagonist. This sense of foreboding draws the reader in.
10. American Gods by Neil Gaiman
First line: “Shadow had done three years in prison.”I remember reading this for the first time and thinking, “Shadow? Really? Like the dog from Homeward Bound?” So, even though I love Gaiman, the name made me a little nervous. But I stopped being bothered by the name very quickly when I got sucked into the story.
The first page talks about Shadow’s thoughts and experiences in prison, which are very interesting and give us a sense of Shadow’s character. For instance, he had this feeling of relief when he was incarcerated because it meant he had hit bottom and could go no lower. There’s an honesty to it that has you rooting for the character almost immediately-- which seems like a big leap from the first line. The key here is the voice: it’s unique, relatable, and intriguing.
11. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
First line: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
A what? In a hole? I’m sure the original readers of this precursor to the LOTR trilogy were baffled by the opening line of Tolkien’s novel, but it certainly sparks curiosity.
The rest of the page goes on to describe Bilbo’s residence: It’s not just a hole in the ground but is actually a very comfortable, well-furnished home under a hill. From the word “hobbit” we suspect that we are not in the real world as we know it, and the description of this home in a hole draws out that feeling of not-quite-rightness. The first few pages are taken up with exposition and hints of future adventure, which is just Tolkien’s style. Tough out the long passages of description/exposition and you’ll be rewarded with some of the most epic fantasy scenes ever penned.
12. Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
First line: “In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three.”
Noticing a trend yet? This is yet another line that begins with world-building. Instantly, we are told rather conversationally that this is not a place we know. The magic-steeped land of Ingary is presented to us as well as the curiosity-piquing statement concerning birth order and luck.
The protagonist, Sophie Hatter-- that unfortunate eldest daughter-- is introduced, and within the first page, the story flies in the face of conventional fantasy tropes, even going so far as to poke fun at them. Diana Wynne Jones’s storytelling voice is unique and engaging, differentiating her work from other YA fantasy.
So, to recap, here are the main ideas I’ve gleaned from reading these first lines & pages (as well as many more that never made it into the blog).
1. Craft purposeful first lines. Your first line should be interesting and original, and it should DO something. A first line that just lays there like a dead fish will never grab a reader’s attention. It can set the tone, begin world-building, introduce a character (and his/her voice), foreshadow plot, jump into the story in media res, amuse, disgust, intrigue, or surprise, but it should never just be.
2. Be unique. The first few pages of your novel can fulfill many different functions and still be successful in hooking the reader. There is no formula for first pages. It can be helpful to take the idea of this blog and run with it-- i.e., model your first page after one by a favorite author-- but once you have figured out and established your own voice in the piece, you should absolutely come back and revise.
3. Teach the audience how to read your novel. In most cases, it’s best to start in the point of view of your protagonist. Know what tense, what voice, and what tone your story will have, and use these from the beginning. A heavy philosophical passage preceding a light-hearted adventure-- or vice versa-- is jarring to the reader. Also, be sure to let them know right away if your novel is not taking place in the real world. This can be done subtly (think Stephen King’s use of made-up words) or blatantly (Diana Wynne Jones’s “In the land of Ingary...”).
4. Introduce major dramatic questions. This may be most important of all: Give the reader a reason to read on. Make them care about your character and understand the stakes of his or her situation. If there’s nothing they’re wondering about by the end of the first chapter, why should they keep going?
Hopefully some of the first lines discussed in this blog caught your fancy. As I said before, these are some of my favorite fantasy novels, so if you're looking for a great read, look no further! I also encourage you to give your own favorite books this treatment and see what makes their opening pages tick. Have a favorite first line that uses one of these attention-grabbing strategies? Share it!