Writing Your Novel’s First Line: Something Authors Don’t Get Right At First

A first line should be like a first bite of a great piece of cake: substantive enough to satisfy, light enough to make you want another

A first line should be like a first bite of a great piece of cake: substantive enough to satisfy, light enough to make you want another

I mentioned yesterday that I’m working on a new opening scene for my latest novel. That means, in part, crafting a new first sentence, which has me thinking about the beauty that is a wonderful opening line (and the difficulty of writing one).

Of course, you don’t have to get the first line right in the first draft, and this scene is in first draft territory. But right now the first line is awful.

Melinda Phinnean attempted to lay a low-cut linen dress on top of a locked travel case, but her brother’s feisty mutt grabbed a sleeve in its teeth and dragged the garment off.

With some slicing it could make a decent enough sentence, but for a first sentence, it accomplishes nothing that I like my first sentences to accomplish.

Every author, and every book, is different, so this is a hard post to write. I don’t want to come across as saying “if your first sentence doesn’t follow these guidelines it’s worthless and you need to recraft it, stat.”

Still, there are certain things I like my first sentences to do. I thought I’d share those things in the hopes of getting people thinking about the weight of their own first sentences.

  • I keep my first sentences short, in an attempt to ease my readers into my story. This is in no small way related to my personal stylistic preference for clarity and simplicity. I establish my style upfront, and I make sure my readers don’t start out confused or questioning where they are.
  • I want my first sentence to pack a punch. It’s easier for me to make an impact with something short but powerful. That’s where my writing is strongest. I make a point as succinctly as possible and then move on. Also, “packing a punch,” for me, largely means “someone is actively doing something.”
  • I want my first sentence to raise interest in the story. Which leads back to “someone is actively doing something.” Action breeds interest. I like my first sentences to indicate that something is happening. People won’t want to keep reading if they don’t think anything intriguing is going on.
  • I try to establish the tone of my story. It’s no coincidence that the first sentence of “The Crimson League” is the darkest first sentence of any of my novels. The first book in my trilogy is by far the most dystopian.

MY FAVORITE OF MY FIRST SENTENCES

My favorite of my first sentences is the one I just mentioned: from “The Crimson League.”

It’s not perfect by any means, but I feel it exemplifies everything I said above and does what I want it to do.

The autumn wind’s whistle died with a choke as Kora Porteg slammed her brother’s window.

It’s short, and it doesn’t involve anything a reader could misunderstand. It involves someone doing something. And words like “died,” “choke,” and “autumn” hint that wherever the characters are, the overall situation is probably not going to be positive.

Where the sentence could be better, possibly, would be if it involved direct, unequivocal tension of some kind to really draw a reader in.

Still, I think there’s an indirect tension there to drive curiosity. Why is Kora slamming a window? Slamming, opposed to closing? Did something startle her? Is she angry about something? If so, what?

So, those are my rambling thoughts about first lines, and how I go about them. Different styles and different tones lead to different kinds of first lines.

MY FAVORITE FIRST LINES FROM AMONG THE CLASSICS

Just as a treat, some of my favorite first lines. These are pretty standard, and you’re probably familiar with most–if not all–of them, but still, they’re fun to revisit 🙂

  • Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing” – Don Quixote de la Mancha. (A great example of a first line setting tone. This is translated, of course, by Edith Grossman from the Spanish, “En un lugar de La Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme….”)
  • “Call me Ishmael.” -Moby Dick. (It’s so plain, so simple, that it’s almost intriguing. What kind of narrator would start a story that way?)
  • “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” -Pride and Prejudice. (I love the sarcastic and judgmental undertones.)

So, what are some of your favorite first lines? What do you love in a good first line?

Feel free to share the first line of your published book or WIP if you’d like! And make sure you drop by tomorrow. I think I want to explore the concept of dialogue as a first line and why I don’t like that set-up as a general rule.

I kind of wish I had thought to talk about first lines somewhere in “Writing for You,” but hey, I can always write a follow-up at some point 🙂

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82 responses to “Writing Your Novel’s First Line: Something Authors Don’t Get Right At First

  1. One of my all time favorite first lines is “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” It just immediately grabs your attention and makes you wonder – What? Why? and Who writes in a kitchen sink?

    Now the first line of my WIP is “Tenir gasped desperately for one last breath.” I like it, it is exciting, there is obvious that something is going on and hopefully makes you want to find out why he needs to be gasping for one LAST breath. He does in fact need to be gasping for breath as he is battling the Gresh in open water and he is losing. The long strand like arms of the plant like beast entangle Tenir, crush him and pull him under repeatedly. It is an epic battle.

    Now on opening lines ingeneral I would say they need draw attantion in to what is going on, draw the reader;s mind to think and to worry and to want to know. That is my goal for a first line. I want to command the full attention of my reader from word one.

    • I like your first line!!! It definitely draws attention and throws the reader right into some heavy action. I’d say you could even expand the sentence if you wanted, but that wouldn’t be necessary to make it “work” better. I feel like it works great the way it is. Leaves a reader with questions to answer in the paragraphs to follow.

  2. I’ve heard other writers say how much they like the first line of Moby Dick. It’s short, but for me it doesn’t pack a punch or raise interest in the story. If I’m just picking up the book and starting to read it without any knowledge of what is to come, how is “Call me Ishmael” any more interesting than “My name is Ishmael”? Boring. Maybe that’s why I’ve never cared to read the book.

    When it comes to stating names, more interesting to me is the first line of Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein: “Once upon a time there was a Martian named Valentine Michael Smith.”

    For a more action-packed first line, I enjoyed the first line of the novel “Knot in Time,” by Alan Tucker: “I had no idea what was chasing me, but I did not like the look of its tentacles.” That line definitely hooked me.

    Here’s a lengthy first line that I think works. It doesn’t have anyone actively doing something, but it raised my interest and it definitely sets the tone of the story. This is from Pharmacology, by Christopher Herz: “Everyone wants more stories about the junkie-vampire-stripper-sex-dungeon-bloodletting-in-front-of-sushi-eating-Hell’s-Angels-and-My-Little-Pony-collecting folks I lived with in San Francisco inside that old Victorian on McAllister that used to be a brothel in the twenties.”

    Here’s another great first line, from the novel “The Unconquered Country,” by Geoff Ryman: “Third Child had nothing to sell but parts of her body.” There’s no one actively doing anything, but that line still packs a punch.

    I’ve read some lame first lines that met the criteria of being short, had someone actively doing something and established the tone of the story, but failed to raise my interest. I won’t mention any specifically. But some authors think that just because they are showing action that the sentence will be interesting. There needs to be something about the action or the situation that readers will find intriguing. “I ate a hamburger sandwich for lunch” shows someone doing something, but I don’t see anything particularly intriguing there. A more intriguing line would be: “I ate a hamburger sandwich for Ishmael.” Any sentence that includes the name Ishmael is automatically intriguing. 🙂

    The first line of my WIP is still subject to change, of course, but right now it reads like this: “The ghost came in through the bedroom wall, her faint glow driving the darkness into the corners of the windowless room.” I’ve thought about shortening it to just the first phrase before the comma, but I didn’t like the second sentence if I split the longer sentence into two. I’m still thinking about it. Got any advice for me?

    • I love the first sentence as you have it! Love it. The idea of the ghost raises interest and suspense, for sure, and the second phrase solidifies and guides image before a period/major pause, eliminating the chance that your reader will get an image in his or her head that doesn’t fit what you want before you clarify things.

      Also, I love your warning that “some authors think that just because they are showing action that the sentence will be interesting. There needs to be something about the action or the situation that readers will find intriguing.” That is very, very true. There’s no tried and true “formula” that will lead to a good first line. it all goes into the content as well as the style, mood and tone, and lots of other things.

  3. Good points about what a first line should do. I think that one from Pride and Prejudice, which is one of my favourite first lines, does an excellent job. It establishes the strong narrator voice, sets out the themes of the book, and is quirky and funny enough to intrigue.

    The first line of William Gibson’s Neuromancer is another good one: ‘The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.’ It’s poetic in a dystopian way, lets you visualise something from the start, and again has a nice sense of humour/contrast.

    • You’re the second person who’s mentioned Gibson and that line. I had never read it before, but it’s FANTASTIC, I agree. It not only presents a clear image but establishes a drab gray mood, and a sense of danger, with the phrase “dead channel”

  4. First lines are my nemesis. I have rewritten the first line (and first chapter) of my latest novel so many times I’ve lost count. I still can’t get it right. Part of the problem is the novel originally started in a different place (what is now about half way through the novel) but there was so much backstory I had to take it back a few months and start there. I’ve never bettered that first opening. Interestingly I usually start with dialogue! 🙂
    The only novel that doesn’t start with dialogue still starts with a direct address (it’s written in the first person present). The first couple of lines came to me in a dream and I’ve barely changed them (I know this is cheating, because it is the first two lines!)
    “My name is Leah. For a quarter of my life I’ve known the time and place of my death.” it goes on to say “I’ve spent the last four years running – from the truth, from the place. I can’t run from the time. It’s tomorrow.”
    I like it because it sets the voice, it tells how old Leah is (4 years = a quarter of her life) and it sets the tension: will she die tomorrow? I wrote a whole novel based on this paragraph! 🙂

  5. “It was a cold day in April and all the clocks were striking thirteen.” from Nineteen Eighty-Four is a good one, it engages the senses right away and introduces the idea that the world is run on military time.

    I’ve also always been partial to “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, the telegram doesn’t make it clear.” from The Stranger–from the very beginning we see Mersault as a man who is frighteningly distanced from the things he should feel some emotion about.

    The first line of my current WIP is “I had an office.” My novel starts slow deliberately, to show my narrator’s attempt to live something like a normal life, before the story rips him out of it again.

    • Nice! I’d forgotten about those first openings: love your analysis of them and agree completely. I read both novels in high school and what I remember about them is precisely what you say that first lines drive home/establish.

      I like your first line too. Short and sweet and makes me wonder where the office has gone 🙂

  6. All Saint’s Day always has an inexorable, woeful note to it.

  7. Ah, I hate the first-lines business 😦 Being a literature student I shouldn’t even say this, but when I read books, I rarely pay too much attention to the first lines. I don’t get warm with a story after just a few lines. The first lines can be as good as they want if they do not introduce a great scene that raises my interest for the whole story. (uff, and now I feel like a filthy philistine…).
    But of course, when I write, I want to have the perfect first lines as well. Actually, I’m not quite sure about my first lines yet. Right now, my novel starts with a prologue, which begins with a German version of, very roughly, “‘I wonder if you really know what you are getting involved with,’ the friendly night-elven gentleman had said with a sly grin as we began to work on our ambitious project.” However, I’m thinking of deleting the prologue. Then the first-line-thing would probably be: “The autumn mountains were not a place where people liked to spend their rare free time.” Which I like, as well, because it set’s the mood and tone, we’re not starting out in an idyllic fairy land, and after a very short bit of mood setting we’re heading right into the event that causes all the conflict of the novel. Which probably should be the very opening, but I don’t really like it that way… Mh, mh…
    A first line that I really liked was the beginning of Mary Renault’s The King Must Die: “The Citadel of Troizen, where the Palace stands, was built by giants before anyone remembers.” Since it’s a story about Theseus and Greek mythology, I think the sentence sets the mood.
    Oh, and of course the first lines of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone 🙂

    • “Mr Vernon Dursley of Number 4, Privet Drive, was proud to say that he perfectly normal, thank you very much.” 🙂 Or something like that 🙂

      Setting the scene/mood can work great with a first line, I agree. If you cut your prologue, you’d definitely have me wondering why the setting isn’t a place where people want to pass their free time. And why that free time is so limited.

  8. This got me thinking not only about my first lines but those of books I enjoy. Of course it made sense to pull a few books off my bookshelf to see what the first lines were.
    “In the Palace of Black Swans, Zakdin, capital of Hatar: Blue eyes wide, Lady Sandrilene fa Toren watched her near-empty oil lamp.” That’s from Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic series, “Sandry’s Book”. It’s not extremely action packed or anything, but it definitely made me curious why a Lady was so concerned about an oil lamp.
    “I suppose a lot of teenage girls feel invisible sometimes, like they just disappear.” Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls series opens with that in “I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You.” Even now, after reading it at least five times, it makes me want to keep reading…and still no real action. I mostly like her voice.
    Richelle Mead’s “Vampire Academy” opens with “I felt her fear before I heard her screams.” That sure catches my attention. It loses some of it’s impact for me when the next sentence starts with “The nightmare…,” but not much.
    “It is my first morning of high school.” So simple and yet so intriguing. Stories about high school always interest me; “Speak” by Laurie Halse Anderson just happens to be better and more heartrending than many I’ve read.
    From these first lines, I can tell I don’t necessarily need action. As long as there’s something intriguing, I can keep reading, it’s the next few pages that decide if I care enough to keep reading.
    As for my WIP, the first line is simply “It’s cold.” It’s not action-packed or particularly interesting, but it definitely fits the story.

    • Thanks so much for taking the time to find these examples! I love them all. And I love your point that there is never one clear cut, “right” way to do it. Action is one way to draw a reader in, but it’s surely not the only way. I’m intrigued about that oil lamp too!!!

  9. I never remember first lines of the books I read, so I can’t really answer the question. For myself, I try to set the mood and atmosphere with the first line of the book. It’s something I try to do with every scene too, so the first line comes off as one of the most difficult parts of my day. The last line isn’t much better because one needs closer without completely closing the door even at the end.

    • Oh man, final lines….. TOUGH. Really, really tough. I like what you say about providing closure while still allowing readers to continue the futures of the characters as they would or giving you as the author room to continue the story in a later book

  10. First lines are hard. They need to entice the reader without being sensational. They have to set the tone of the book.
    Some of my favorites are:

    Feed By M.T. Anderson “We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.”

    The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness “The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say.”

    Neuromancer by William Gibson.”The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

    American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis “ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE is scrawled in blood red lettering on the side of the Chemical Bank near the corner of Eleventh and First and is in print large enough to be seen from the backseat of the cab as it lurches forward in the traffic leaving Wall Street and just as Timothy Price notices the words a bus pulls up, the advertisement for Les Miserables on its side blocking his view, but Price who is with Pierce & Pierce and twenty-six doesn’t seem to care because he tells the driver he will give him five dollars to turn up the radio, “Be My Baby” on WYNN, and the driver, black, not American, does so.”

    • Love your examples of first lines describing setting! Setting is so largely tied to tone and mood that an interesting description of setting that draws the reader in can be very effective to start a novel.

  11. “A Tale of Two Cities”, Charles Dickens: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair … ” always comes to my mind.

  12. I do like Austen’s first line – it sets up the tone of the book – but it’s one of those that I think have been overused in recent years. Or maybe this just comes from studying Pride and Prejudice for dull coursework’s purposes.
    I don’t think I’m very good at writing action first lines – maybe of scenes/chapters because there is less pressure there, but not of books – and I like to have a more reflective first line as it raises questions for the reason before they witness the actual action of the story.

    Strangely, I’ve been happier with the first line of my current WIP, not even finished, than any of the first lines of my previous, edited stories. However, that may just be because I’m having trouble with the first chapter of the novel I spend most time editing, and its balance between dialogue, action, tension, and *shudder* backstory (some CPs have said I need to explain more about the characters, some have said I need to explain less, which doesn’t help).
    Well, I quite like the its first line, at the moment: “If one unsaid rule stood that Miss Aidelle Masters hated the most, it was that the upper-class held the reins of beauty.”

  13. It took me years to realise that every story I wrote – every single one – started with “Character Name did something as they drove/walked/worked” The same construction, over and over. They might have smiled as they drove up the street, or grimaced as he pulled a plug of hair from the drain, but they always did something as they did something else. The same sentence again and again.
    Now I’m terrified of using that sentence construction as an opener. I’m not sure I’ve found anything better, but I did enjoy the story that began “And he woke up and found it had all been a dream.”

  14. Now you make me think that my first sentence is wrong and plain – “The sun was almost here.” Any thoughts?

    • Are you writing in present tense? If so, “here” is off in terms of tense.

      Maybe you could reword the idea to really highlight tone: the darkness lingering, or the light coming (which is the idea you’re currently projecting).

      You could go for a more active verb than “to be,” such as “rise.” You might also add to the sentence…. just some thoughts that first came to me.

  15. I’m writing in past tense, should I use “there” instead? I like your idea of highlighting the tone!

    • “There” is temporally correct in the past as an editor would tell you, but artistic license definitely exists 🙂 You can always choose to keep it.

      And I’m glad that highlighting the tone was a useful suggestion!

  16. I’m glad you clarified upfront not to freak out about a first draft first sentence. I hate it when writers obsess over it, but the book still isn’t written. Great advice, Victoria!

  17. My favorite first line has long been the first line of Lord Valentine’s Castle by Robert Silverberg: And then, after walking all day through a golden haze of humid warmth that gathered about him like fine wet fleece, Valentine came to a great ridge of outcropping white tone overlooking the city of Pidruid.

    Yes, that really is the first sentence of the first book in the Lord Valentine series. It is utterly brilliant. It sets the tone, it makes us curious to know why it starts with “and then” and wonder what came before. It mirrors Valentine’s own confusion as the story begins. Like the story, the sentence begins slowly in haze that gathers “like wet fleece” with words that create a kind of languid confusion, but in the last part of the sentence Valentine “comes to,’ foreshadowing his awakening from drug-induced amnesia, and that section of the sentence is filled with specifics and with crisp sounds like the r’s and k’s in “ridge,” outcropping” and “overlooking.”

    • NICE! Love your analysis of why the line works so well: I actually just crafted my post for tomorrow about why dialogue can sometimes work as an opening line, and I say something very similar: it confuses the reader, who doesn’t have the whole story. Who doesn’t know who’s talking. Who doesn’t know what’s going on: perhaps just like the characters.

  18. Two more that came to mind:

    “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.” from Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting Of Hill House–that one still gives me shivers.

    And : “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents… some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new Dark Age.” from H. P. Lovecraft’s The Call Of Cthulhu.

    BTW the last lines of my current WIP are:

    merry christmas, james.
    Merry Christmas, Catskinner.

  19. I like the first line of the book I am reading at the moment. The City of Dreaming Books by Walter Moer starts with “This is where my story begins.” Very short and simple and it could be a dangerous way to start a book but so far it so good.

  20. What a great topic! I have a WIP where I’ve stuck with the same first sentence, but I’ve always known that it would need to be changed, I’ve just never known how. I’ll have to take your advice and revise!

  21. Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K…- The Trial, Franz Kafka

  22. Mine is very different: “A bloody Rembrandt this guy, God.” It was the seventh dawn since their escape, and Roxx had yet to acclimate to the stark Saharan sunrise.

  23. “He felt his right hand squelch into the sodden mud above, his foothold on the rockface failing and both hands slipping.”

    I can’t help but think I’m trying too hard with that, yet it seems like I’ve set the peril up pretty well.

  24. I have an extremely difficult time writing openers. I wind up writing and rewriting. A great opening line I read comes from Markus Zusak’s I AM THE MESSENGER: “The gunman is useless.” It drew me into the story immediately.

    • that’s definitely a line to draw someone in! Wow…. that’s awesome! And I have lots of problems with opening lines too. Have no idea what I’m going to end up doing with the one I have for my current WIP. So you’re definitely not alone.

      One thing we can always do is ask beta readers for feedback specifically on the first line and first paragraph to see what they say and WHY it doesn’t work if they say it could be better.

  25. I love to read first lines of novels. Throughout the day my brother comes up with great first lines for fun and as an exercise. I have started to do that here and there and it’s a lot of fun.

  26. Good thoughts, I’m going to have to polish up some first lines now…

  27. I’ve just come across these wonderful comments as I consider my first line.
    A few years ago in our local bbokshop, I picked up a novel because I liked the cover and immediately bought it when I read ” In the crypt of the abbey church at Hallowdene, the monks were boiling there bishop” The Bone Pedlar by Sylvia Bishop, I was not disappointed.

  28. The first sentence is the first impression. The first meeting between the reader and the book. Action is a great way to begin, but in some cases or genres it may not capture the mood. Although, I don’t recommend beginning with something melodramatic or depressing. Most people do not find that characteristic appealing upon introduction- whether in a person or a book.

    I personally like to capture one of the senses in my first sentence. It throws the reader right into the environment of the story. I love to be descriptive with more than just adjectives (of course that doesn’t just apply to the first sentence) just as you did in your sentence.

    You can feel the chill of the autumn weather, and hear the whistling. Then that experience is abruptly quashed by the slamming of the window. You feel a shiver due to both the temperature change and rush of anxiety and tension. Maybe she is avoiding someone’s attention, or maybe she overheard something which upset her. And the fact that she is not at her own window raises suspicions as to what she is doing at her brother’s. But you’re not suspicious of her since she is the first character we meet. You identify with her. You just don’t want to be caught (if it turns out that Kora and you are trying to be under the radar after all). What can be seen/experienced out her brother’s window that cannot be observed from her own?

    Anyways, I know you are well aware of all this and included all of this into the first sentence intentionally, I just wanted to comment as feedback all I gleamed from just the one sentence. Also, The Crimson League is now on my reading list since I need to know what happened next.

    • Aw, hope you enjoy the book when you read it!!!

      I love everything you say here: how action isn’t always appropriate (things like that definitely depend on the work and the author) and how you tap into one of the senses. I think that’s a great, substantial beginning that ties the reader bodily in to the book.

  29. Pingback: AUTHORS: Three ways you can focus the final line of your novel or short story | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  30. I really enjoy a good first line. Some of my favourites are:
    “When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it’s never good news.” That’s the first line of Anthony Horowitz’s young adult novel Stormbreaker and kicks off the fast-paced Alex Rider series.
    Another favourite young adult novel is The Vanishing of Katharine Linden by Helen Grant which opens with, “My life might have been so different had I not been known as the girl whose grandmother exploded.” That’s so intriguing you just have to read on.
    I also really like the opening of Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. It’s very simple – “My name, in those days, was Susan Trinder.” You immediately ask the question, so what is your name now? It throws into doubt who the protagonist is, which is very relevant to the story as it turns out.

  31. Pingback: The Art of Story Telling for the Weekend Writer | A Stroke of Life

  32. Good post. I don’t know, if it accomplishes all you mentioned, but I think it creates interest. My first line is, “Sara planned to spend the day cleaning house, but instead found herself straddled over a corpse putting pantyhose on it.”

  33. Pingback: First Impressions, Part one: The opening line | Shadow And Clay

  34. Pingback: Should your first scene be about action or exposition? 4 considerations to help writers find balance | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

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