Monday, July 6, 2009


Agents, editors, and the like frequently write/speak/blog about the importance of 'firsts' in novels: the first chapter, the first five pages, the first page, the first paragraph, the first sentence.

But how important are these things to actual readers?

Of course the first chapter would be important, since a boring first chapter would get you nowhere. And the first five pages should probably include something more than aimless dialogue or incessant exposition and back-story. But what about the first page? Or the first paragraph? Or, especially, the first sentence?

Usually, in my experience, by the time a reader opens a book to read the first page or two, they know at least a bit about the novel either from a friend, a magazine/newspaper article, a poster, the back of the book, or whatever. While the reader might put the book down if it just isn't for them, I question whether a first sentence, paragraph, or page will sway someone one way or another given what they already know about the book.

So I wanted to ask YAYA readers and contributors: Do you ever put a book down after reading the first sentence? The first paragraph? The first page?

I definitely understand putting a book down when the actual writing style doesn't mesh with your personal likes, but that would be true regardless of what the author put in that first page. Does the actual content ever sway your decision?

I took a look at the limited number of young adult books I have on my desk next to me and decided to write down some first sentences. Would you keep reading?

1. The day begins in the middle of the night.

2. Marly was dead, to begin with.

3. It wasn't supposed to be this hot and humid on Cape Cod.

4. "Sex and religion don't mix," my grandma once told me.

5. Even the woods are burning.

6. After midnight, the apartment waited, still in the moonlight and the heat.

Which of these sentences make you want to keep reading? Any of them? All of them? None of them?

Can you identify any of the books these came from? (Answers will come next week. I'll be surprised if anyone gets these(without using Google!), as the books are an eclectic mix spanning the last several years.)

One last question: Do you have any favorite first lines?


Amanda J. said...

Good post. :)
I think that a lot of it is about the style of writing and the author's voice; you may know what the book's about but if you don't like the voice or style, you aren't going to be reading more than the first few pages.
As for the content, sometime it comes down to what you thought it was going to be being different than what the book really is. I've put a few books back that were made out to be really intense but the first pages just drag on and on. If you can't hook a reader, no one's going to read your book.
The first sentence can really grab your attention and make you think that the book is worth reading. For instance, I'd probably read #s 2,4, and 5 and possibly #1 if the first paragraph was interesting the others just don't really grab my attention or make me curious at all. I think that's why there's a push for all of the firsts to be really good, because you can hear all the great things in the world about a book or know what it's about, but if it doesn't hold you from the get go chances are you're going to drag your feet when reading or you're going to give up on it.
Of course, that's just the way I see- and people tend to think I'm a little out there. :P

althrasher said...

Not usually, unless the opening content is all purple. For instance, I probably would only read #6 if the first page had a LOT of dialogue or action on it after that.

As for favorite first lines, I'm out of town right now so I don't have any of my books with me, but I'll have to go find some out!

hannah said...

My favorite first lines:

"I never had a brain until Freak came along and let me borrow his for awhile, and that's the truth, the whole truth."--Freak The Mighty by Rodman Philbrick

"The day my sister, Gillian, decided to pronounce her name with a hard G was, coincidentally, the same day mother returned, early and alone, from her honeymoon." --Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You by Peter Cameron

"Maman died today."--The Stranger by Albert Camus

"Dear Friend, I am writing to you because she said you listen and understand and didn't try to sleep with that person at that party even though you could have." --The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

"For the first time in his life Indigo Casson had been properly ill." --Indigo's Star by Hilary McKay

"Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler's pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die." --Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

And my absolute favorite:

"I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice--not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God: I am a Christian because of Owen Meany." --A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

(he's written extensively about writing this first sentence--he only writes his first sentence once the rest of the book is complete, and he basically considers this sentence to be his masterpiece.)

Shelli said...

I totally put a bok down if it does not grab me in the first page!And I do it alot. Even if it is recommended. I have to be grabbed on the first page. I usually have my kids with me so I need to get it on page 1

Sophie W. said...

I tend to judge a book based on the first handful of pages. Based on my mood, I can read anywhere from one to ten pages before making a decision.

Anonymous said...

How far I'll read depends a lot on the circumstances of my having the book. If a friend recommended/gave it to me, I'll give it at least a few chapters - I might even read the whole thing, as I'm both a fast reader and a finisher. :P If I've already checked it out of the library, it'll likely get at least twenty pages to make a case. If I'm in a library or bookstore, and I see a book that I've heard about and wanted to read, it might get a few pages. If I just spotted an interesting cover and liked the text on the back, the book had better grab me on the first page.

My favorite first line is from Howl's Moving Castle: "In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is a great misfortune to be born the eldest of three."

elissa said...

I think personally, the first few pages does make or break the book for me(although I sometimes open at random and read a chunk, so really who the heck knows?), but only if it's a book I know nothing about and I'm just picking it up in the bookstore. For me, the back of the book does almost nothing to get me interested--I will skim it, but then I open to the first page and start reading. I want to be hooked, but I'm a patient reader. I don't need amazing action all happening at once in my first pages. What I look for more is that elusive "voice", a sense of the book's style and rhythms. I like good writing; I like seeing language put together in ways that surprise and intrigue me...much more so than explosions and car chases, so to speak.

(except one of my mss opens with a car chase, haha)

oh, but also? I'm a weirdo, and frankly, I have a really weird way of choosing books.

also also? If a person whose opinion I trust recommends a book, I'll buy it/read it despite my feelings for the first few pages.

Kimberly Joy Peters said...

My personal favourite first line:

"Sybil Davison has a genius I.Q. and has been laid by at least six different guys." (Forever, by Judy Blume)

April said...

Nice post.
I might put a book down after the first page if I find the voice very jarring, or exceedingly depressing, but generally I'll read the first few chapters before I get fed up.

My favorite first sentence:
"I wasn't at all surprised when Cinderella gave me the finger." --Dream Factory, by Brad Barkley and Heather Hepler