5 First Lines from Fiction that Stretch a Reader's Attention Span
Storytelling Content Creation

5 Fictional First Lines that Stretch a Reader’s Attention Span

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Our attention spans suck. Although we are reading three times as much as we were in 1980, we’re skimming content more than we are internalizing it, and that’s if we are hooked by the lead.

With a decreased attention span, a story’s first line has never been more important. Sharing emotional insight throughout the entire piece is essential, but it starts with sentence one. The writer must jolt the reader into a temporary alternate reality—story—and dare the reader to stay awhile and poke around.

Whether we are content marketers, freelance business writers, or novelists, first lines should be treated like shotguns—held with care, fully loaded, and fired with confidence.

Nobody writes a first line like a fiction writer. Here are five of my favorite first lines from fiction and what makes them tick.

1. “Creative Writing” by Etgar Keret

“The first story Maya wrote was about a world in which people split themselves in two instead of reproducing.”

Go ahead, click on the link to read Keret’s short story—you can finish this article later. Keret’s first line is so bizarre (yet easy to visualize) that you need to read on. In one short line Keret offers character, direction, and most importantly, intrigue (Why is Maya writing stories about people splitting in two? What other strange stories will Maya write?). Give your reader a reason to wonder, and their attention span will grow.

Let it snow2. “Let It Snow” by David Sedaris

“Winters were frustratingly mild in North Carolina, but the year I was in the fifth grade we got lucky.”

Adverbs shine when they are paired with a seemingly opposite or uncommonly used other word. “Frustratingly mild” is a fresh, interesting adverb/adjective combination, and it alerts the reader to a character’s desire—a desire that the winters were more generous with snow. We are pulled into the story through the character’s wish that has been fulfilled.

Line one is rooted in setting, in character, and in an immediate desire, evoking a sense of adventure and nostalgia that Sedaris carries throughout the plot, peppered with ample humor. The story is moving from line one.

3. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid

“Look, unless you’re writing one, a self-help book is an oxymoron.”

Establishing tone of voice is hard. Establishing the right tone of voice is harder. In How to Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, Hamid kicks off the novel by giving his narrator—an impoverished rural boy turned corporate tycoon—a voice that commands attention with dry truth. It’s as if prior to reading line one you had been arguing with the narrator, and now he’s setting you straight. Voice matters in the mix, not only to fiction writers and readers, but to brands and marketers. Will your stories come off as droll? Reassuring? Daring? As chief content officer at MarketingProfs Ann Handley says, tone of voice is the secret sauce of your content marketing barbecue. Get cookin’.

The Hobbit4. The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

Let’s be clear—clarity and curiosity are not contradictory. We may write simply and simultaneously spark interest in the reader, as Tolkien does in The Hobbit. Begin your story as clearly as possible and with the slightest of twists—in this case, what the hell’s a hobbit? The advice that “no one has ever complained that you’ve made something too easy to understand” echoes around the vast cave of the blogosphere, but it bears repeating. Your readers will thank you.

5. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”

Well now. That pretty much does it, doesn’t it? Whatever language Kafka’s story has been translated to (it was originally published in German), there’s no waiting around for the conflict—the guy’s a bug. Will Samsa’s metamorphosis go over well with his family and coworkers? We all know the answer. Sorry, Samsa.

The Metamorphosis by Franz KafkaLines like these make me think of one of Kurt Vonnegut’s writing rules: “Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.”

Whether you’re writing an article on social amplification, content strategy, or men mutating into vermin, give the reader as much as possible, as soon as possible. There’s no time for fluff, so don’t make any.

By channeling these introductory tips when you sit down to write, your stories will shine from the first to last line. Sleep well at night knowing your audience is spending more time with your content, their attention span stretching down the page—that is, unless you start transforming into an insect.

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