THE FIRST WILL BE LAST
The first line of your book may be the last you write to finalize your novel. The first line you write 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.
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 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 was 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.
“● 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.”
In her book Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction author Patricia Highsmith suggest putting motion or a moving element (like a train or car) into the first line.
● Include something which moves and gives action
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) and your book won’t stand a chance.
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 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.” www.instituteforwriters.com/opening-lines
The pro and cons of prologues is another topic which should be addresses separately.
Suzannah 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. Suzannah 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 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 the seven 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.” Jacob M. Appel,
“● 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.” Jacob M. Appel,
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 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 are 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. Read the list of first lines below.
When I first wrote this article, 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 in 2019. 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.
“Marsh is not swamp. Marsh is a space of light, where grass grows in water, and water grows into the sky.”
June 23, 1611 AD
“Behind the iron bars, the witch knelt on a filthy bed of straw and prayed to God.”
“SOMETHING WAS NOT RIGHT.
Dr. Samantha Parish noticed an odor as she pulled the door of her Prius closed.”
“You’re Invited: Seek women aged 18 to 32 to participate in a study on ethics and morality conducted by a preeminent psychiatrist. Generous compensation. Anonymity guaranteed. Call for Details.”
It’s easy to judge other people’s choices.”
Lale tries not to look up. H reaches out to take the paper being handed to him. He must transfer the five digits onto the girl that held it.
Part I – The Killing
On a cold morning in early October of 1946, Peter Banning awoke before sunrise and had no thoughts of going back to sleep. For a long time he lay in the center of his bed, stared at the dark ceiling, and asked himself for the thousandth time if he had the courage. Finally as the first trace of dawn peeked through a window, he accepted the solemn reality it was time for the killing.
“Sadie Lane walked through the day spa, closing up for the night, alone as usual. Her coworkers had left, but even if they hadn’t, they’d just be milling around with their expensive teas, complaining about how hard this job was.”
“There are times when my father’s absence is as heavy as a child sitting on my chest. Other times I can barely recall the exact features of his face and must bring out the photographs I keep in an old envelope in the drawer of my bedside table. There has not been a day since his sudden and mysterious vanishing that I have not been searching for him, looking in the most unlikely places.”
“He’d never been asked to wear a suit to a job interview. Never been told to bring along a copy of his resumé. He hadn’t even owned a resumé until the previous week when he’d gone to the library on Thirty-fourth and Madison and a volunteer career counselor had written one for him…”
“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the l ast people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they didn’t hold with such nonsense.”
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) http://americanbookreview.org/100BestLines.asp.
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.
FIRST LINES BY DICK FRANCIS (my personal King of the First Line)
Flying Finish by Dick Francis
“You’re a spoiled, bad-tempered bastard,” my sister said, and jolted me into a course I nearly died of.
For Kicks by Dick Francis
“The Earl of October drove into my life in a pale-blue Holden which had seen better days.”
Risk by Dick Francis
“Thursday, March 17, I spent the morning in anxiety, the afternoon in ecstasy, and the evening unconscious.”
Hot Money by Dick Francis
“I intensely disliked my father’s fifth wife, but not to the point of murder.”
Straight by Dick Francis
“I inherited my brother’s life. Inherited his desk, his business, his gadgets, his enemies, his horses and his mistress. I inherited by brother’s life, and it nearly killed me.”
Twice Shy by Dick Francis
“I told the boys to stay quiet while I went to fetch my gun.”
Dead Heat by Dick Francis and Felix Francis (2008)
“I wondered if I was dying. I wasn’t afraid to die, but such was the pain in my gut, I wished it would happen soon.”
Wild Horses by Dick Francis
“Dying slowly of bone cancer, the old man, shriveled now, sat as ever in his great armchair, tears of lonely pain sliding down crepuscular cheeks.”
Banker by Dick Francis
“Gordon Michaels stood in the fountain with all his clothes on.”
FIRST LINES BY JANET EVANOVICH
Four To Score by Janet Evanovich
”Living in Trenton in July is like living inside a big pizza oven. Hot, airless, aromatic.”
High Five by Janet Evanovich
“When I was a little girl I used to dress Barbie up without underpants. On the outside, she’d look like the perfect lady. Tasteful plastic heels, tailored suit. But underneath, she was naked.”
Ten Big Ones by Janet Evanovich
“The way I see it, life is a jelly doughnut. You don’t really know what it’s about until you bit into it. And then, just when you decide it’s good, you drop a big glob of jelly on your best T-shirt.”
FIRST LINES FROM OLDER MYSTERIES
The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie
“I have often recalled the morning when the first of the aonymous letters came.”
Unnatural Causes by P. D. James (1967)
“The corpse without hands lay in the bottom of a small sailing dinghy just within sight of the Suffolk coast.”
A Certain Justice by P. D. James (1997)
“Murderers do not usually give their victim notice.”
Devices and Desires by P. D. James (1989)
“The Whistler’s fourth victim was his youngest, Valerie Mitchell, aged fifteen years, eight months and four days, and she died because she missed the 9:40 from Easthaven to Cobb’s Marsh.”
“L” Is For Lawless by Sue Grafton (1995)
“I don’t mean to bitch, but in the future I intend to hesitate before I do a favor for a friend of a friend. Never have I taken on such a load of grief.”
“R” Is For Ricochet by Sue Grafton (2004)
“The basic question is this: given human nature, are any of us really capable of change? The mistakes other people make are usually patently obvious. Our own are tougher to recognize.”
The First Eagle by Tony Hillerman (1998)
“The body of Anderson Nez lay under a sheet on the gurney, waiting.“
Fear No Evil by Allison Brennan (2007)
“The sick and depraved had voted: Death by stabbing.
Kate Donovan’s whisper became a cry as she pocketed her cell phone, unable to respond to the text message her only remaining friend in the FBI had sent.”
Loves Music, Loves To Dance by Mary Higgins Clark (1991)
“The room was dark. He sat in the chair, his arms hugging his legs. It was happening again. Charley wouldn’t stay locked in the secret place. Charley insisted on thinking about Erin. Only two more, Charley whispered. Then I’ll stop.”
Visions In Death by J. D. Robb (Nora Roberts) (2004)
“She’d gotten through the entire evening without killing anyone. Lieutenant Eve Dallas, cop to the bone, figured the restraint showed enormous strength of character.”
FIRST LINES FROM OLDER NOVELS
Gone For Good by Harlan Coben
“Three days before her death, my mother told me—they weren’t her last words but they were pretty close—that my brother was still alive.”
Berg by Ann Quin
“A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father.”
Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler (2001)
“Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.”
A Frolic Of His Own by William Gaddis (1994)
“You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.”
Death In A Sunny Climate by Diane Shalet (1994)
“I sat at Michael’s desk, buried under a mountain of third-class mail. October 7, 1983. The second plea from Newsweek: YOU HAVE NOT RENEWED. PLEASE TELL US WHY. I answered for him: Because I died. Then I signed his name.”
Her Secret Agent Man by Cindy Dees (2005)
“Huge snowflakes drifted down around him in a winter-wonderland scene, and the boughs of the pine trees passing beneath his feet sagged under a heavy blanket of white. Neon-garbed skiers whooshed past, laughing, but up here on the ski lift, all was silent. Peaceful. Bucolic. And his palms positively arched with a need to kill the woman he was here to meet.”
The Medusa Game by Cindy Dees (2006)
“The bus the terrorists had demanded was just pulling up in front of the Olympic village apartment building. The casual observer wouldn’t see the dozen German army snipers lying in wait around the street, but Isabella Torres was no casual observer.”
The Reef by Nora Robers (1998)
“James Lassiter was forty years old, a well-built, ruggedly handsome man in the prime of his life, in the best of health. In an hour he’d be dead.”
Agnes And The Hitman by Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer (2007)
“One fine August evening in South Carolina, Agnes Crandall stirred raspberries and sugar in her heavy nonstick frying pan and defended her fiancé to the only man she’s ever trusted. It wasn’t easy.”
The Spiral Path by Mary Jo Putney (2002)
“The trouble with reality was that it was so dammed real.”
A Time To Kill by John Grisham (1996)
“Billy Ray Cobb was the younger and smaller of the two rednecks. At twenty-three he was already a three-year veteran of the state penitentiary at Parchman. Possession, with intent to sell. He was a lean, tough little punk who had survived prison by somehow maintaining a ready supply of drugs that he sold and sometimes gave to the blacks and guards for protection.”
All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
“The last time I saw Mason City I went up there in that big black Cadillac with the Boss and the gang, and we burned up that new concrete slab, and it was a long time ago—nearly three years ago, for is it now into 1939. But it seems like forever."
Evening In Byzantium by Irwin Shaw (1973)
“The plane bucked as it climbed through black pillars of cloud. To the west there were streaks of lightning. The seat-belt sign, in English and French, remained lit. The stewardesses served no drinks. The pitch of the engines changed. The passengers did not speak.”
I’ll Remember You by Barbara Ankrum (1999)
“Dusk seemed to hold its breath as the gunshot’s echo reverberated against the canyon’s rocky walls. Birds fell silent. Even the steady coastal breeze, which had only moments earlier relieved the thick summer evening, stilled as the two men stood at the top of the precipice, staring down into the well of darkness below.”
The Man From St. Petersburg by Ken Follet
“It was a slow Sunday afternoon, the kind Walden loved. He stood at an open window and looked across the park. The broad, level lawn was dotted with mature trees: a Scotch pine, a pair of mighty oaks, several chestnuts and a willow like a head of girlish curls.”
The Parasites by Daphne DuMaurier (1949)
“It was Charles who called us the parasites. The way he said it was surprising, and sudden. He was one of those quiet, reserved sort of men, not given to talking much or stating his opinions, unless upon the most ordinary facts of day by day, so that his outburst, coming as it did towards the end of the long wet Sunday afternoon, when we had none of us done anything but read the papers and yawn and stretch before the fire, had the force of an explosion.”
My Cousin Rachael by Daphne DuMaurier (1952)
“They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days. Not anymore, though.” [The novel also ends with this line.]
Baited by Crystal Green (2006)
“As another scream tore through the island forest, Katsu Espinoza stopped in her tracks, trying to get a lock on where the sound was coming from.”
Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith (2008)
“Since Maria had decided to die, her cat would have to fend for itself. She’d already cared for it far beyond the point where keeping a pet made any sense. Rats and mice had long since been trapped and eaten by the villagers.”
Key Witness by J. F. Freedman (1997)
“Early dark, time suspended between sunset and true night, the barest sliver of dying sunlight fading on the western horizon, flickering dull yellow-vermilion patches visible through the thick clusters of trees that bracket the narrow two-land road.”
Mutant Message Down Under by Marlo Morgan (1991)
“It seems there should have been some warning, but I felt none. Events were already in motion.”
A Western, unnamed (I think this may be from a movie, but I like it.)
“Quiet Town wasn’t.”
1984 by George Orwell
“It was a bright cold day and the clocks were striking thirteen.”□
Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction by Patricia Highsmith
07/25/2011 – updated May 29, 2019