Sunday, 19 September 2010


Nell and I attended a panel discussion at FantasyCon headlined 'In the Beginning: every story begins with a single sentence' which discussed the importance (or irrelevance) of the first lines of a story. I was keen to attend because I'd had put a lot of thought into the DM's own first line:

'Norma ran. Picked up her skirts and ran as she had never run in her life. Ran as though the Hounds of Hell were at her heels.
Fuck it...the Hounds of Hell were at her heels.'

and I wanted reassurance that I hadn't been wasting my time.

Oddly the panel seemed to think that having that killer first line wasn't that important. They opined that it was the first page that was important as they believed that a lot of buyers bought books after reading that in the shop. They also mentioned Ford Maddox Ford's Page 99 Test which advises readers to reference page 99 to ensure that the quality of the book is consistent (I think I'm on safe ground here with DM: it's Vanka's introduction and page 99 is quite jaunty).

I wonder though if the panel are correct to be so dismissive of the opening paragraph. Personally I've never read more than the first few lines of a book in a shop - I'll check out the cover and I'll read the blurb on the back and if these two intrigue me only then will I open it up to read.

I Googled 'why do people buy books' but what's there is there is pretty unconvincing. However I'm pretty sure publishers have done studies on this which is why they spend so much money on getting the cover right (or wrong). My own opinion is that to get a buyer to physically pick up a book in a shop it goes something like this: is it in the right genre section, is it being prominently promoted, is the title interesting, is the cover enticing, do I know the author, is it the right size, do I like the premise described by the blurb, does the first paragraph grab me. Get over these hurdles and you've got a sale. Therefore I think that first paragraph is a key component of the buy/no buy matrix.

I am sure that if I'd have randomly picked up '1984' and read:

'It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen'

there would have been no way I wouldn't have bought it. Similarly with 'Neuromancer'' and:

'The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel'.

My especial favourite is from 'A Clockwork Orange':

'What's it going to be then, eh?'

Interestingly Nelli always looks at the last line when she buys a book, so I'm going to have to start paying more attention to that.

1 comment:

  1. OK, it is not strictly correct: I DO look at the first line too, sometimes. But if I'm interested in a book, I ALWAYS look at the back - I hate the endings which are kind of meanderings, with bits of weather and nature -Nooooo, give us the last bit of the action, and what DID happen to the main hero/ine at the end, anyway? Cliffhangers... hmmm..., I do like them, but there's got to be the next book then!