Inspired by Openings

I love the “Shelf” section on W’s Loud Solitude.

There is something so tantalizing about catching a glimmer of a book from peeking at its first line. This is how I usually decide what to read in a bookstore or a library. My first influence is, of course, the title on the spine. But once the book is in my hands I turn immediately to the first page. I don’t read the flap copy—I don’t want to know another person’s interpretation of what the book is “about” before I’ve had my own taste of the actual writing. Also, the flap copy can ruin a story for me by telling too much. So I try to avoid it. I start with the first sentence. If it sings, if it pulls me in and draws me to read the whole page, I’m caught. If it falls flat, I slip it back on the shelf and search for another.

No pressure about first lines or anything… but this may be why I agonize over my openings. I love the way my first attempt at a novel opens—it took me years to get there. I keep wanting to return to it if only to make use of those first few lines. Someday, somewhere, I’ll find the exact right place to put them.


  1. I couldn’t agree with you less. Sorry, I couldn’t resist. Just wanted to pique your interest to read the rest of my comment. I do something similar with a new book, especially if I’ve already been prejudiced by advance reviews or jacket blurbs, but I dip much deeper into the book and look for the first bit of dialogue I find. If the writer handles conversation well, I’ll try a bit of prose, and if I’m even tempted to turn to another page after that, I probably have a winner in my hands. That’s when I start to get goosebumps of anticipation.

  2. i don’t know. i rely heavily on synopses in the back covers or the dust jackets, because i’d want to know if the plot is suited to my reading tastes. that said i’ve often been suckered into reading books i don’t enjoy because of those synopses. the same can be said for first lines. as a reader i don’t care too much for first lines, because it’s what’s between the first and last lines matter more. so don’t pressure yourself!

  3. David, what about those good books that have little or no dialogue, or that handle dialogue in a slightly unconventional way, such as running into each other without paragraph breaks? Or do you just mean conversation with a keen ear for pacing, etc.?

    For me the first few pages of a novel set the tone and pacing for the rest of the book. Sometimes I’ve been wrong, though! so I do think it depends on the type of book being read as well. One novel recently surprised me by how rich and intricate it was, when the first few pages felt so claustrophobic that it almost turned me off completely.

    And from what I understand about descriptions on front flaps and blurbs, they’re written by insiders who ignore the perhaps less stellar aspects of the book—weak dialogue or characterization or pacing, for example. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it’s nice to have your peers watch out for you (some blurbs are just single-word bits from friends and colleagues), but the jacket is really just about luring the reader to buy the book. (That said, I do judge a book by its cover, but more by the design rather than what’s being written about it. If any one of your photos were to grace a book cover, Nova, I’d be intrigued enough to pick up the book and see if I might devour the first few pages.)

  4. Just an example, really, W, I don’t care if the book has dialogue in it at all to be frank, but if it’s there, and it’s bad, it will really reduce my enjoyment. There’s no dialoge to speak of in Beckett’s trilogy, but the writing grabs me and won’t let go no matter what page I turn to.

  5. i love the first line and the first paragraph–it’s where i get a sense of the narrative voice. if i love the voice, then i’m bought in! (literally).

  6. Thanks so much for the link to W — you’re great at finding good things, Nova!

    I think first lines matter. They’re not the only thing, of course, on which to judge a book, but they’re an art form of sorts, and one I pay attention to.

    I do open books in the middle and read the dialogue — I’m interested in dialogue, for one thing, because I’m a writer and I like to see how people handle it. But I also do think dialogue is one way to gauge what the world of the book will be like. In fact, I just pulled something off my shelf a moment ago and opened to the middle of something at random: there are no quotation marks around the dialogue —
    It’s for a Mr. Slater, he said. I’ll see to it. He said, Maybe I will skip the coffee. I better not walk across this carpet. I just shampooed it.
    That’s true, I said. Then I said, You’re sure that’s who the letter’s for?

    Could you guess this is Raymond Carver. Here are the first lines: “I was out of work. But any day I expected to hear from up north.”

    I’d read more, that’s for sure.

    xo, BL

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