Let’s steal from great first lines
The best thieves don’t limit their thieving grounds; they steal from anywhere.
So, while the first two posts in the Let’s Steal From series were about great examples of marketing (Epic Split and Follow The Frog), the third wasn’t — it was about a 150-year old information graphic. And this one is about stealing from great novelists.
More specifically, it’s about stealing from the great first lines of novels.
Marketers like you, me and the weird folks sitting next to you can learn a hell of a lot from great first lines. Because, when you think about it, the challenge that a novelist faces when writing that critically important first line is very much like the challenges we content marketers face every day:
We have to take someone from their world into ours.
We have to make them not just agree to come with us but want to come with us.
We have to do it fast.
We have a line (or maybe a paragraph) to take them from a cold state to a warm one; to make them put aside 97 competing bids for attention and focus on ours.
We have to make people lean forward, into our story instead of blinking or turning their heads 12 degrees to the right or picking up their iPad or coffee cup or Sonos controller or Instagram feed.
And, just as with novelists, your first lines are actually a long way down the reader/buyer’s journey. To get them to this point, you’ve already done so many things well.
They’ve chosen your story. Maybe they’ve bought or downloaded it – or filled out a form. They’ve found a free moment and negotiated a nano-slice of attention. They’ve cracked open the cover. Flipped past the title page and copyright page and…
This is your shot and you’ve earned it.
Win them here and you’ve got momentum on your side. They just might stay with you.
Lose them here and they’ll go away, tweet bad things about you and never come back.
In short: first lines matter. And the things we can learn from the great ones will not only make our own first lines better, they’ll make all of our content better.
[An inevitable caveat: not all great novels start with great first lines and not all great first lines lead to great novels. But the ones I’ve chosen both are and do.]
So let’s get going.
Some great first lines.
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
— 1984, George Orwell
I love this line because it’s almost entirely banal (maybe the ‘cold/April’ is a slight twist) — until the last word turns the whole thing upside down.
With that last word, the sentence takes an abrupt turn and we know in an instant that we’re in another world. A familiar world – with days and clocks and seasons – but also a strange one.
There are even hints about the nature of this new world (the clocks are striking in unison; and time, one of civilisation’s most basic conventions, has somehow been re-calibrated).
All this in a sentence.
If you can stop reading at this point, you’re better off with Dan Brown*.
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
— Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
One of my favourite books also has one of my favourite openings.
This line plays against the conventions of all the expository opening lines through literary history. There’s also a hat tip to Dickens and, obliquely, to Huck Finn (another great opening).
But what I love most about it is that, in a few deft strokes, Salinger has his narrator, Holden Caulfield, standing right in front of you, fully-drawn, in all his adolescent glory.
And you know two things straight away: that this won’t be a conventional narrative; and that your guide will be a hoot.
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
— One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
We’ve got a man facing a firing squad (it will be two hundred or so pages before we know why).
We see that, moments before his violent death, he’s calm enough to reminisce about a ‘distant afternoon’ (a nice time/space-bending metaphor).
We learn that, in a hot climate before the invention of refrigeration, ice was a wonder that you’d travel to see.
We’ve got a sense of his warm relationship with is father.
In the space of a sentence, you belong to Garcia Márquez. You are his until he’s done with you. You are in the hands of a master.
“The final dying sounds of their dress rehearsal left the Laurel Players with nothing to do but stand there, silent and helpless, blinking over the footlights of an empty auditorium.”
— Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates
Sometimes first lines create snapshots; frozen moments that stand for the entire novel. This is one of those.
It’s a picture as theatrical as the scene it describes and it’s the perfect metaphor for Yates’s bleak world view. (All the world may be a stage and all the men and women may be merely players, but, for Yates, there’s not even anybody in the audience.)
This opening line collects enough cold, grim words to overwhelm a double-dose of Seroxat: ‘final’, ‘dying’, ‘nothing’, ‘silent’, ‘helpless’, ’empty’… Little Miss Sunshine it ain’t (despite the cheerily-named Laurel Players).
We’re about to be dragged through a sad story of flawed people stumbling through dysfunctional relationships – ‘silent, helpless and blinking’. And it’s going to be great.
“Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the a.m. heat: shattercane, lamb’s‑quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek.”
— The Pale King, David Foster Wallace
This is not only a fantastic opening line, it’s also the saddest first line in all literature. Because the novel that it starts was never finished: its author, David Foster Wallace, killed himself before finishing it (a major tragedy not just for his wife, family and friends but for everyone who loves reading).
The sentence is silly-long, startlingly beautiful and laugh-out-loud-more-than-once funny.
The clumsy “a.m. heat” subverting the descriptive lyricism (typical Foster Wallace).
The endless list of wonderfully-named plants (“invaginate volunteer beans”?!).
‘A’ mother but ‘your’ cheek.
It’s a car scene, with the landscape sliding past; but not so fast that you skip the poetry (“coins of sunlight”) or the excruciatingly-detailed botany.
I don’t just need to read this novel, I grieve that I can’t. That no one ever will.
So now I have to translate all this genius back to the mercenary world of content marketing?
Well, I didn’t come this far to give up now (and I hope you won’t either):
What we can steal from these great opening lines
We’ve said it many times (not least in our slideshare The Other C-Word: What Makes Great Content Marketing Great): confidence is the most important signal your content marketing can send – and the only attribute that all great marketing shares.
All these first lines signal supreme confidence. In just a few words, you know you’re in great hands and you’re ready to go wherever they lead.
Attention is the gateway drug of content marketing. You can’t get people addicted without it.
Surprise isn’t the only way to earn attention but it’s a powerful way. And it happens when you understand the unwritten conventions of the context of this particular engagement – then break (or bend) those conventions.
Great opening lines (like the Orwell and the Salinger) often surprise by playing against convention.
Often, great openings plant seeds. They let you know that something is coming but they don’t tell you what.
Content marketing should use this technique more: raise questions without immediately answering them. Trust your readers. Don’t pre-digest everything for them.
Stephen King says that strong opening lines say to the reader, “Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”
The same message is critical to content marketing. It’s not afraid to say, “This is important.”
Great opening lines give you your first taste of the voice you’ll be listening to. That voice needs to be attractive: distinctive, interesting, specific and controlled.
Too much content marketing acts as if it’s simply an information-delivery mechanism. That’s why no one reads it.
Openings also signal the world they’re in and the world view of the author.
Content marketing needs this, too. There are so many possible perspectives that any piece of content can come from. Pick one and let the reader see it early.
All great work is an act of theft. If you feel bad about it, remind yourself that the people you’re stealing from stole from someone else (as did his or her victim and on and on).
With that in mind, it pays to steal from the best. From the people who inspire you the most.
And stealing from places beyond marketing keeps your stuff fresh and unexpected.
Have your own favourite first lines? Do share them below…
* I don’t want to be a snob here — oh, fuck it, yes I do. This is the first line of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code:
“Renowned curator Jacques Sauniere staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.”
In Language Log, Geoffrey Pullum points out that the use of the main character’s name, preceded by his or her job title (without a ‘the’) is an opening for an obituary not a novel.
Brown also wrote this:
“Captain Bezu Fache carried himself like an angry ox, with his wide shoulders thrown back and his chin tucked hard into his chest. His dark hair was slicked back with oil, accentuating an arrow-like widow’s peak that divided his jutting brow and preceded him like the prow of a battleship. As he advanced, his dark eyes seemed to scorch the earth before him, radiating a fiery clarity that forecast his reputation for unblinking severity in all matters.”
I rest my strong, chiseled and unblinkingly severe case.
Other posts in the Let’s Steal From series
In which we dissect great things to figure out what makes them so great:
Follow The Frog – Max Joseph and The Rainforest Alliance skip the guilt trip and get practical (and very, very funny).
Paths of Flight – a beautiful, understated film from GE Aviation
Epic Split – Jean-Claude van Damme nearly rips his tight jeans (and dies) for Volvo Trucks.
Great First Lines of Novels – Turns out Orwell, Salinger, Garcia Marquez were content guys.
Rand Fishkin and Moz’s Whiteboard Fridays, which owns SEO.
Airbnb City Guides – Useful, optimized, crowdsourced.