OK, suppose you were looking for a novel to read. Think about what you do when you go into a bookstore or a library:
What intrigues you about a book?
Why do you pick it up?
Why do you open it up?
Why do you keep reading?
Why do you buy it?
Here’s how those questions work for me: Title, Cover, Blurb, First Line, First Paragraph, First Page. Each stage is a gate, if the book passes through one gate, it goes on to the next, until I decide to buy or put it back on the shelf.
Now, I don't do this consciously, (or I didn't before I started writing) but that's how it works. Author can be important too, there are a few authors I'll pick up almost regardless of everything else. But for the unknown author, it works the way I outlined.
So lets look at each of these in turn. How much control do you, as an author, have over each of these:
Title: Author has little control. Publishers change titles all the time, depending on what they think will sell. Sometimes they may even be right.
Cover Art: Author has virtually no control. Some publishers solicit your input, but they may ignore it. Sometimes they put in exactly what you specifically request they leave out, and leave out exactly what you specifically request they put in.
Don’t be sensitive.
Back of the Book Blurb: Author has little or no control. In most cases some PR flack is going to write this, without having read your book.
First Line: Author actually writes this!
First Paragraph/First Page: These too!
So what should a first line do? Tell, or preferably show, you something compelling, intriguing, provocative and seductive, about the characters, situation, conflict, plot, tone, scope or theme of the story. It should draw you in inexorably, irrevocably, compellingly, and subtly, without, of course, using too many adverbs.
So here's an example:
The rain fell in torrents, only checked by violent gusts of wind which swept up the street and rattled along the house-tops, fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps struggling against the darkness.
Now is that a great opening line, or what? Maybe a bit purple, but in one sentence you get the entire opening scene, and the theme of the story. Rainstorm, gothic, dark, city, gaslight era. The 'rattled along the housetops' conjures pictures of slanted tile roofs edged with snarling gargoyles. The whole thing imparts a sense of desperation and impending doom. You can almost hear the organ music.
This is actually my own rewrite of the most famous opening line in English literature. It begins: "It was a dark and stormy night. ...." Look it up, and tell me how I did.
What's your favorite opening line?
I think mine is: "I told him I loved him but he killed me anyway." Now I never actually read the book that is from, in fact I don't remember what the book is, but isn't the line great? (In all fairness I only saw the line on a blog, not in the book.)
How do you decide what book to buy?