The first line of your book may be the last you write to finalize your novel. The first one you write when you start your novel will be the place holder until something better comes to mind, but at the very end, after the book is finished, you’ll most likely end up writing a new first line.
My message here is: “Don’t spend a lot of time writing the first line or first chapter over and over.” Move on. Finish the novel. Then rewrite the first line and paragraph. Don’t worry! There will be plenty of other things you need to change at the beginning.
Common wisdom in the writing world claims the opening line sells your book and the closing line sells your next book. Whether that wisdom is accurate or not, most writers seem to agree the first line of a novel is oh, so very important. Some believe it can make or break your novel.
Think of the first line as a headline in a newspaper. This is what attracts the reader’s attention. It has to be intriguing enough to make the reader want to read the second line, and then the one after that.
Think about it. A reader wanders through the bookstore (or in this electronically oriented world, wanders through a website), spots a catchy cover, and picks up the book. Or, perhaps, this reader goes directly to the shelves holding the desired genre and studies the titles and author’s names. Next, read the cover blurb. “Hmm. That sounds interesting.” And then the reader opens the book and skims the first paragraph.
That’s when you have to hit ’em right between the eyes. Knock ’em dead. It’s the first thing they read of the story itself, the first impression. You’ve only got a few seconds to sink in your teeth. It better be good!
If an author doesn’t make the effort to sculpt the words of the first line into a masterpiece, what level of attention has he/she taken with the key moments in the novel when interpretative pressure is at its peak, when capturing a complete fictional world is at its most pressing? As one writer put it, “Screw up the opening, screw up the book.”
WHAT TO DO AND WHAT NOT TO DO
So, how does a writer come up with the perfect first line? I wish I knew. If there were a failsafe formula, someone would be out there selling it and making a bundle. Instead, there are a plethora of opinions and guidelines—things an author should and should not do—and those vary to some extent. They all agree it should be intriguing and capture the reader’s interest. It’s the how of it they disagree on. Well, maybe not even the how, but more what is interesting and compels the reader to go on.
● Be intriguing,
● Hint of things to come,
● Be compelling,
● Establish an intriguing question
Make the reader want to find out more,
● Set the tone and flavor of the book
Show what kind of book it is,
● Incorporate the mood or theme of the story.
Suzannah Windsor Freeman adds the following to the list:
● Make your readers wonder.
Put a question in your readers’ minds. What do those first lines mean? What’s going to happen? Intrigue with unanswered questions and they’ll keep reading.
● Begin at a pivotal moment
By starting at an important moment in the story, the reader is more likely to want to continue so he or she can discover what will happen next.
● Create an interesting picture.
Description is good when it encourages people to paint a picture in their minds. Often, simple is best so it’s the reader who imagines a scene, instead of simply being told by the author.
● Introduce an intriguing character.
The promise of reading more about a character you find intriguing will, no doubt, draw you into a story’s narrative. Most often, this is one of the main characters in the book.
● Start with an unusual situation.
Show us characters in unusual circumstances, and we’ll definitely be sticking around to see what it’s all about.
● Begin with a compelling narrative voice.
Open your story with the voice of a narrator we can instantly identify with, or one that relates things in a fresh way.”
● Include something which moves and gives action
In her book Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, author Patricia Highsmith suggests putting motion or a moving element (like a train or car) into the first line. Highsmith encourages action rather than a sentence like, ‘The moonlight lay still and liquid on the pale beach’.” Showing rather than telling. “The movement needn’t be as noticeable as the examples I listed earlier. It can be more subtle like a door that closes and the character leans against the wall…”
● Bland or trite … or just plain boring.
● An overused references to the weather or time of the year.
If you choose to write about the weather, be careful. You run the risk of inviting comparisons to “It was a dark and stormy night,” (Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s classic first line from his 1830 novel, Paul Clifford.) Yet many good authors use weather openings because it sets the mood so well if done properly. If you must do that, make it unique somehow.
Too often the writing sounds like the author is trying to impress someone (an agent or editor) with the prose, rather giving a sense of the story or drama .
Watch out for both choice of words and/or the concept.
Jeff Vasishta, writing for the Institute of Writers, includes prologues in the do-not category. “Take this one with a grain of salt. Many agents hate them [prologues] but I’ve read a few books recently that have great prologues. Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest springs to mind. The author received $1,000,000 advance for the novel, which went on to be a best seller. So, agents don’t always know what they’re talking about.”
The pro and cons of prologues is another topic which should be addressed separately. With the exception of the prologue issue, I’d venture to say that most authors, editors, and agents agree on the above don’ts. Beyond these, references include advice not everyone may agree with. Apply with caution.
Windsor Freeman feels dialogue is all right somewhere on the first or second page, but not in the first line. She feels the reader won’t know who’s speaking or care.
● Excessive description
Some description is good, but not when it’s long winded. Skip the purple prose and opt for something more powerful.
● Irrelevant information
The first few lines of your story are crucial, so give your reader only important information.
● Introduction of too many characters
I’m not sure how you introduce too many characters in one line, but I suppose it is possible. Windsor Freeman doesn’t like to be bombarded with the names of too many characters at once. How is the reader supposed to keep them straight?
The form of the first sentence is not the same as what the opening should do or not do. Feel free to disagree with me, but I believe they are not the same thing … well, not exactly, anyway.
Jacob M. Appel, a Writer's Digest contributor, provides the following direction by listing several things he believes are different approaches to writing the "killer opening line". (https://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/7-ways-to-create-a-killer-opening-line-for-your-novel)
"● A statement of eternal principle.
▪ “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” (Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice)
▪ “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” (Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina ).”
● A statement of simple fact
Of course, these have to be telling facts. The examples listed do the job.
▪ “I had a farm in Africa.” (Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa)
▪ “It was a pleasure to burn.” (Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451)
▪ “I am an invisible man.” (Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man).
● A statement of paired facts.
One fact may not be particularly interesting or compelling. Paired with another fact that makes the reader think, “That’s odd,” raises a question and makes the reader want to find out more. The example Appel uses is from Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter:
▪ “In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.”
Two mutes always together is unusual. So, what’s up?
● A statement of simple fact laced with significance.
The key to understanding the story, or solving the mystery, or discovering a character’s secret, etc. can be hidden in the first line. The reader usually forgets until the mystery is revealed.
● A statement to introduce voice.
A first line can be used primarily to introduce a distinctive voice, rather than character or plot. Appel writes, “Stories that begin with a highly unusual voice often withhold other craft elements for a few sentences—a reasonable choice, as the reader may need to adjust to a new form of language before being able to absorb much in the way of content.”
● A statement to establish mood.
Contextual information not directly related to the story can often color our understanding of the coming narrative. Take Sylvia Plath’s opening to The Bell Jar: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” While the Rosenberg execution has nothing to do with the content of the narrative, it sets an ominous tone for what follows.”
● A statement that serves as a frame.
Sometimes, the best way to begin a story is to announce that you’re about to tell a story. English storytellers have been doing this since at least the first recorded use of the phrase "Once upon a time.”
We all have our favorite first lines, and it’s always interesting to compare advice with published books to assess whether or not the words of wisdom hold true. When you do that, however, don’t look at the same old first lines. Look at the contemporary best sellers.
Trends change. What editors and agents are looking for today may not be the same as five or ten years ago. At one point, advice was to begin with conflict but, in fact, it depends on the kind of novel. The field of fiction writing accommodates many approaches to writing, and they can all be good. If it works, it works!
Ask yourself why a particular opening or first line works for you? Literary agent, Rachelle Gardner, writes that when she considered her favorite first lines, and asked herself why she like them, “I found each one appealed to me for a different reason. It might have:
● been clever
● been thought-provoking
● brought an immediate smile (or stab) of recognition
● struck me as poignant
● painted a really cool word picture
● set up an intriguing mystery
● introduced a character I want to know better
● made me laugh
● drawn me into an unfamiliar world
● used words in a beautiful way
The one thing they all have in common is they make me want to read more. They immediately draw me into the universe of the novel by the unique voice that first line begins to establish.” (https://rachellegardner.com/that-all-important-first-line/)
A SHORT PARAGRAPH ABOUT PARAGRAPHS
The fiction writing industry usually talks about the impact of The killer First Line. It’s great to be able to hook a reader with a single line – they’re very handy as tag lines -- but I believe what we should be talking about is first paragraphs.
Many of the great “first lines” are more than one sentence. My advice: as long as the reader will read the whole paragraph (or as many lines in the paragraph for the hook) don’t sweat it. Some books will require more than one or two lines to create the hook.
When I first wrote this article in 2017, I listed a sampling of the first lines I’ve collected over the years; some good, some not-so-good. There was quite a variety, and several were first paragraphs rather than first lines. Quite a few were penned by mystery writer Dick Francis who, in my opinion, is one of the Masters of the First Line.
For this edition, I took Jeff Vasishta’s advice and looked at books that have been on the best seller list within the last few years. After all, styles change over time and some on the best 100 list are quite old and not at all captivating to modern readers. Some of them clearly need more than the first and second lines to create the impact the author wants. These are in no particular order.
● WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING by Delia Owens
“Marsh is not swamp. Marsh is a space of light, where grass grows in water, and water grows into the sky.”
● CRUCIBLE by James Rollins
June 23, 1611 AD
“Behind the iron bars, the witch knelt on a filthy bed of straw and prayed to God.”
● THE HOTEL NANTUCKET by Elin Hilderbrand
“Nantucket Island is known for its cobblestone streets and red brick sidewalks, cedar-shingled cottages and rose-covered arches, long stretches of golden beach and refreshing Atlantic breezes—and oits also know for residents who adore juicy pieces of gossip (which hot landscaper has been romancing which rich real estate mogul’s wife…that sort of thing).”
● IT ENDS WITH US by Coleen Hoover
“As I sit with one foot on either side of the ledge, looking down from twelve stories above the streets of Boston, I can’t help but think about suicide.
Not my own. I like my life enough to want to see it through.”
● THE HOUSE ACROSS THE LAKE by Riley Sager
“My phone is ringing when I return to the lake house, its angry-bird chirp audible as I climb the porch steps. Because I’m wet, tired and chilled to the bone, my first instinct is to ignore it. But then I see who is calling.”
● ESCAPE by James Patterson
“He’s here somewhere. I know it. And the girl might still be alive.”
● SPARRING PARTNERS by John Grisham
“It was one of those raw, windy, dreary, Monday afternoons in February when gloom settled over the land and seasonal depression was rampant. Court was not in session. The phone wasn’t ringing. Petty criminals and other potential clients were busy else where with no thoughts whatsoever of hiring lawyers.”
● LIAR LIAR by James Patterson and Candice Fox
“SOMETHING WAS NOT RIGHT.
Dr. Samantha Parish noticed an odor as she pulled the door of her Prius closed.”
If you want to pursue this further, this is the link to the American Book Review List of the One Hundred Best First Lines in American literature (novels).
I can’t say that a lot of those 100 Best resonate with me. Quite a few break one or two of suggestions about what not to do when writing a first line. Others, while they are first lines from great works of literature, aren’t exactly catchy as stand-alone opening lines.
I believe the first lines considered good and great may vary depending both time and location. For example, in my opinion, British readers are generally much more tolerant of lengthy sentences and difficult words than American readers. Although I haven’t really studied this topic in detail or done extensive research, it seems there are differences in “best first lines” in books written in earlier centuries (such as Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe written in 1719) and more recent works, as well as difference between literary fiction and popular fiction.
Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction by Patricia Highsmith