Case Studies For Writers

a craft toolbox

Feb 28, 2020

How to Write a Killer First Line

By Yanina Wallis.

Let’s face it, we’ve all been there. We’ve all spent much longer than we care to admit anguishing over whether the first line of our novel is exciting enough. Reading it, deleting it, rewriting it, reading it, deleting it, rinse, repeat, to the point where you never think you’ll have that killer first line that your opening deserves.
The reality is, your first line doesn’t need to carry the weight of your entire novel. Take a look at any book from your collection and read the first line. Is it exciting? Sure, there are some fantastic exceptions, but the majority of books don’t open on a t-shirt worthy, instant classic.

But what if you want to be the exception? How do you write something engaging and memorable without making it too quirky or cliché?
There is, actually, a science to it, and once you learn the key elements that make a good first line, it’ll change the way you write them in the future.

The most important thing to consider when deciding on those first words, is does it offer the reader enough information to intrigue them? Whether it’s related to the character, the plot, or the world you’ve created, it’s paramount to pique their interest. In many cases, the most important thing to offer your reader is a question. If a reader finishes your first line with a question in their head, then they’ll keep reading in search of an answer.

But let’s break down the fundamentals of what makes a great first line. I will include an example of each and discuss what I believe makes them engaging.

Character
One of the most important things to include in your first line is your character. Immediately establishing a character gives the reader someone to connect to, orienting the reader with a perspective in which to view the world.
Think of reading a new book as walking through a fog. We don’t know what’s in the fog, how long it will take us to get through it, or what’s waiting on the other side when it clears. A reader will only fumble blindly through the fog for so long. Introducing a character straight away is an offered hand to hold onto. Someone to guide us through the unknown and explain how things are within this unfamiliar world. And although you don’t necessarily need to introduce a character in the first line, remember not to leave your readers stumbling in the fog for too long.

Example: “Shadow had done three years in prison.” American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Immediately we are introduced to Shadow and are offered a small insight into his predicament. He’s in prison. Why? What did he do? These are questions the reader raises upon reading this line. As we navigate through these questions, we can view the answers through Shadow’s perspective, making him easier to understand and sympathise with.

Setting
When focusing the first line of a book on the setting, it’s always a good idea to open with an observation. If you haven’t established a character yet, a sure way to orient a reader in your world is to play on the senses. What do you want your reader to immediately see, hear, or feel?
Keep in mind you don’t want to assault your reader’s senses with too many observations, but a well-worded description of one or two sensory images could hint at a conflict or a setting. This is an organic way to build upon your story without disrupting the flow with info-dumps.

Example: “The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden there came through the open door the heavy scent of lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.” The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

This is an excellent example of playing on the senses. Not only are we given the setting, a studio, but we learn that it’s summertime, and the scents of the blossoming flowers is the most prominent, overwhelming thing in the room, and the first thing we would notice upon entering.
The floral imagery this creates off the bat also gives the reader a taste of how floral the writing style will be. The Picture of Dorian Gray is a prose-heavy book, and this first line suits it perfectly.

Conflict
I wouldn’t recommend beginning a story in the middle of a battle, or any similar chaotic conflict. However, starting a story with a minor conflict, an internal conflict, or the idea of conflict to come, can be a fast way to invest readers in not only the plot, but also in who is involved. If the conflict is an integral theme, it can also lean heavily on the overall tone of the book.
Let’s say you’re writing a romance novel, and you open the story with a break-up. The conflict is the break-up itself, but it initiates the tone of the whole book. We know the protagonist’s journey will be finding new love, and the reader anticipates it due to the set-up in the opening.
One thing to remember when beginning with conflict is to avoid info-dumping. You don’t want to overwhelm the reader with reams of information and zero context. Tease the conflict, and then build on it slowly as the reader adjusts. You don’t want to over-do the exposition.

Example: “I would have lived in peace. But my enemies brought me war.” Red Rising by Pierce Brown

I love this opening. I remember smiling when I read it because within these two lines, I wanted to know more about this war and who it affected. Granted, this is two lines, but sometimes the second line complements the first. When the flow of the two is perfect, they almost read as one. This is a simple but incredibly effective sentence. Though readers may not have a character to connect to or a world to imagine yet, the stakes already feel high.

Tone
These particular openings establish the tone a novel will take, the over-arching theme of the whole book and what’s considered important. It sets up the story so readers can immediately identify what they’re in for if they continue reading. Opening with a tone-setter is also a sure way to establish your novel’s genre. We can tell straight away whether we’re reading a thriller or a comedy. If you have a particularly “voicey” narrative, tone is a great way to showcase that voice, which in turn brings us a little closer to the narrator of the story.

Example: “The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.” The Secret History by Donna Tartt

This is a fantastic opening, and one of my favourites. If this doesn’t set the tone for the entire novel, I don’t know what does. Richard is our narrator here, and from this line, I can already sense that he’s regretting the events that took place. An opening like this is effective because it also offers the reader a glimpse at the conflict, Bunny’s death, as well as leaving us with questions. How did Bunny die? What is their situation and how are they involved? We learn from this first line that Bunny’s death will be the main theme of the book, and much of the narrative will center around this moment.

Questions
These are often teaser openings, a dangling a carrot. We can’t help but pursue it. They’re evocative, and designed to press on our emotions and curiosity. If you’re going to use your first line to pique a reader’s interest and make them ask questions, it’s wise not to wait too long to deliver on those answers. These can also be considered hooks. Great! You’ve caught the reader. Now you need to keep them there.
With a first line such as this, you essentially promise the reader that if they keep reading, they’ll find the answers they seek. How soon you choose to divulge those answers is up to you, but don’t leave them hanging too long.
A great way to keep a reader interested is to pose another question before or after you answer the first one. That way, the reader is in a continual state of curiosity. There should always be a question that requires an answer, but always make sure to answer more than you ask by the conclusion of the book. Too many unanswered questions at the end can be unsatisfying. The same goes for the beginning.

Example: “The Night Circus arrives without warning.” The Night Circus by Erin Morganstern

Here is a short and sweet line. It’s simple, but there’s something magical about it. It creates curiosity whilst invoking whimsical imagery. This is the perfect first line for the style and prose of this book. A reader can’t help but wonder about this spontaneous night circus. It’s a line designed to draw us in like it has a secret and it’ll share it with us if you just keep reading.

All of the Above
I haven’t seen it done often, but these rare and magical openings are the literary unicorns. If you can paint an entire scene in a single line, don’t hesitate. Do it. Even implementing just two or three key elements in your first line will go a long way to engaging the reader even further and grounding them within the narrative.
You might have noticed that a lot of the above examples used at least two of these five key elements. This is far more common as it covers more ground. You want to orient your reader as quickly as possible without overwhelming them, so don’t be afraid to experiment with any combination of these. There’s so much to work with, and balancing every aspect without sacrificing flow can be tough. Be careful not to add too many elements if it doesn’t fit your story.
Your first line doesn’t have to be all or nothing. But if your first line can orient your reader with a character perspective, ground them within a basic setting whilst simultaneously establishing conflict and tone to invest in, and then finally leaving them with questions and a desire to know more . . . well, my friend, give yourself a pat on the back because you’ve just incorporated all the basic storytelling fundamentals in a single line.
Openings like these excite readers. If an author can create so much in our minds from just one line, imagine what they can do with thousands.

Example: “The night Kate decided to burn down the school chapel, she wasn’t angry or drunk. She was desperate.” This Savage Song by V.E. Schwab

Again, this is another example of two lines reading with the flow of one. In this first line, we are offered many things. First, we’re given a character, Kate. We’re given a setting, the school chapel. We’re given a conflict, the fire. The tone, a foreboding sense that something isn’t right, and it isn’t going to end well. And finally a question. Why is she desperate? After just two lines, the reader can visualise everything that makes this scene important, perfectly paving the way for answers and organic growth.

In a bookshop, most readers will test at least the first paragraph, if not the first page to see if it grabs them enough to make a purchase. Same goes with sample chapters online. So as I said before, a first line doesn’t need to do any of the above things when you potentially have an entire page to work your magic. But your first line is a tool. It’s a strategy, a placard that should say to the reader, “Keep reading. You won’t regret it.”
So my biggest question is this: why would you not utilise your first line to hook the reader? First impressions are everything, so use it to your advantage.

However you chose to start your novel, whether by any of these key elements, or none of them at all, just remember that your readers need something to keep them invested. Give them a reason to care, a character to root for, or a cause to fight for. Time is as much an investment as money, and your novel is one investment you really want to pay off.


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About the Author: Yanina Wallis
By day Yanina Wallis is a self-employed artisan living in the English countryside of Lincolnshire. By evening she is a reader, writer, book reviewer and blogger. Her life is all things books and she is constantly learning how to improve her craft as she actively aspires to be a professional writer.
She began her writing journey at age fourteen and has been crafting stories ever since. Having spent three years reviewing books on Goodreads for the fun of it, Nina decided to start her own book review blog in 2019 called The Fussy Reader, where she reviews both new and old books.

You can follow Nina on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/the_fussy_reader/