5 Elements of a Riveting First Line

The opening line of your book is your first (and, if you don’t take advantage of it, last) opportunity to grab your reader’s attention and give him a reason to read your story. That’s a gargantuan job for a single sentence. But if we break down opening lines, we discover a number of interesting things. One of the most surprising discoveries is that very few opening lines are memorable.

Say what?

Before you start quoting the likes of such classic (and highly memorable first lines) as “Call me Ishmael” and “It is a truth universally acknowledged…”, take a moment to think about the last few books you read and loved. Can you remember the opening lines?

The very fact that these unremembered lines convinced us to keep reading until we loved the books means they did their jobs to sparkly perfection. I looked up the first lines of five of my favorite reads from the last year:

“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.”—The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

“From a little after two oclock [sic] until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that—a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and the dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being flecks of the dead old dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling blinds as wind might have blown them.”—Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

“It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.”—The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

“They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days.”—My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

“On the night he had appointed his last among the living, Dr. Ben Givens did not dream, for his sleep was restless and visited by phantoms who guarded the portal to the world of dreams by speaking relentlessly of this world.”—East of the Mountains by David Guterson

So what make these lines work? What about them makes us want to read on? Let’s break them down into five parts.

4 Steps to a Riveting Opening Line Infographic

(Featured in the Structuring Your Novel Workbook.)

1. Inherent Question

To begin with, they all end with an invisible question mark. Why is the other side of the bed cold? Why are these characters sitting in a hot, dark room? How can silence be divided into three separate parts? Who did they hang in the old days—and why don’t they hang them anymore? And why and how has Ben Givens appointed the time of his death? It’s not enough to tell readers what’s going on in your story; you have to give them just enough information to make them ask the questions, so you can answer them.

2. Character

Most of these opening lines give us a character (and the rest quickly introduce their characters in the sentences that follow). The first line is the first opportunity the reader has to meet and become interested in your main character. Faulkner and Guterson ramp this principle to the max by immediately naming their characters, which allows readers that many more degrees of connection.

3. Setting

Most of these lines also offer a sense of setting. In particular, Faulkner, du Maurier, and Rothfuss use their settings to impart a deep sense of foreboding and to set the tone of the book. Modern authors are often shy of opening with description, but a quick, incisive intro of the setting not only serves to ground the reader in the physicality of the story, but also to hook their interest and set the stage. In Worlds of Wonder, David Gerrold explains that opening lines “that hook you immediately into the hero’s dilemma almost always follow the hook with a bit of stage setting” and vice versa. The opening line doesn’t have to stand alone. It is supported by and leads into the scaffolding of all the sentences and paragraphs that follow.

4. Sweeping Declaration

Only one of our example books (du Maurier’s) opens with a declaration. Some authors feel this is another technique that’s fallen by the wayside, along with the omniscient narrators of Austen and Tolstoy. But the declaration is still alive and well, no matter what point of view you’re operating from. The trick is using the declaration to make readers ask that inherent question we talked about above. “The sky is blue” or “a stitch in time saves nine” are the kind of yawn-infested declarations that lead nowhere. But if you dig a little deeper—something along the lines of William Gibson’s “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel”—you find not only a bit of poetry, but also a sense of tone and the questions of why? that make readers want to keep going.

5. Voice

Finally, in every one of our examples we find the introduction of voice. Your authorial voice in general, and the voice of this story in particular, is your reader’s introduction to you. Your first line is your “hello.” Don’t waste it. Is your book funny, snarky, wistful, sad, or poetic? Make sure we find that core element in your opening line. Don’t hand readers a joke at the beginning if your story is a lyrical tragedy.

Opening lines offer authors their first and best opportunity to make a statement about their stories. Play around until you find something that perfectly introduces your story’s character, plot, setting, theme, and voice. Your opening line may be as short as Suzanne Collins’s. It may (heaven forbid) be as long as William Faulkner’s. It may be flashy, or it may be straightforward. Whatever the case, make sure it’s an appropriate starting line for the grand adventure that is your story.

Tell me your opinion: Do you remember the opening line of the last good book you read?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Oh, I like this break down. Thanks!

    I did an exploration of the opening page of a several books on my blog a year or so ago, and I keep thinking it might be time to look again — I really think this is the sort of thing to keep looking at.

    I find that most of the books I like best, though, don’t always have a grabber opening. I like series books with interesting characters and so I don’t need to be hooked.

    However, my favorite opening of any book is from Stuart Kaminsky’s SMART MOVES:

    “I was leaning out of the window of a room on the twelfth floor of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, but I wasn’t enjoying the view. My right hand was trying to hold on to the sleeve of a frightened dentist who dangled and swayed in the April breeze. My left hand gripped the window sill in spite of the arm behind it, which ached from a very fresh gunshot wound.”

    That’s from the Toby Peters series — a Hollywood noir pastiche with a down-on-his-luck P.I. who was always finding himself in such situations.

  2. I was once actually a third through a Katherine Kurtz before realizing I’d already read the novel. So don’t ask me about opening lines of novels’ I’ve read. The individual sentences are meaningless to me. I think the importance of the opening line is overly emphasized. The writing as a whole has to transport me. Telling, omniscient or, agonizing detail WILL keep me from reading on, though.

    I believe the opening line is important in that it reflects what the remaining eighty-thousand words will portray. Will it transport me into the protagonist world?

    Regards,
    Mac

  3. @The Daring Novelist: Hard not to be hooked by a dangling dentist!

    @Mac: The opening line is like a beautiful picture on a fancy restaurant’s menu. It teases us into trying the dish, but has little bearing on the success of the meal’s taste.

  4. I recently read The Gunslinger by Stephen King which has, in my opinion, the best opening line I’ve ever read:

    “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

    That one line summarizes everything you need to know about the story going forward: setting (desert, western), antagonist (man in black), protagonist (gunslinger), and the primary conflict (catching the man in black).

  5. We always hear about the flashy opening lines, but often the utilitarian ones are the best.

  6. I actually wrote a blog post about opening lines recently. My advice was that, yes, they are important, but instead of stressing over an opening line, which is what I had done for a while, that writers are better off just writing one and moving one. I think that we tend to put too much emphasis on the opening line. While I agree that we only have a short window to grab a reader’s attention, I think most readers are willing to read at least a paragraph or two before they decide whether a book is for them. As I wrote on my blog, if you’re got enough memorable lines, wherever they may appear in your manuscript, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about. 🙂

  7. The first page is a combined effect. Happily for us, the first line doesn’t have to stand alone. In fact the first line can be as boring as all get-out if it serves to lead into the gripping sentences that follow.

  8. Very interesting tips. The most recent story I wrote begins with the following dialouge:

    The autumn foliage burns like a fire in my eyes. “Shut up, Joshua!”
    “Please, just listen to me. “ He grabs my wrist.

    –We have a brief mention of setting, but also a question. We’ve walked into an argument: what are they arguing about? What is their connection to each other?

  9. While the opening lines aren’t exactly the end all be all for the book, the advice you gave on how to approach it can say a lot for where the book is going and if you are writing one, the overall plot line you are writing.

    One of my favorite books, I Know This Much is True, started out with the main character’s brother going into the library and preparing to cut off his hand. Later, we learn that he has a mental illness and the main character continues to struggle with his brother and his disease.

    So, that first line may not be the most important compared to the entire book, it does carry with it an insight nto what The reader can expect.

  10. @Galadriel: You’ll often find advice against opening with dialogue, but a strong verbal exchange, especially an argument, can be a beautiful way to begin in medias res. Introducing it with a bit of setting, as you’ve done, grounds the dialogue and helps prevent white wall or talking head syndrome.

    @Nicole: First lines are very much about inspiring correct expectations in the reader. First impressions, right or wrong, influence our reaction to the entire story to follow.

  11. Great post. This complements my current post on my blog which is how to write that great first line of your book. Or how to try and write that great first line.

  12. Do you have a link to share?

  13. I agree – there is great purpose in the first line. It took me nearly an hour to decide how to open my first chapter, what the first line would be. For me, it conveys more than an invitation to read the story, it is a declaration of all the potential adventure, mystery or intrigue that is waiting within the pages. Thanks for this!

  14. Writing first lines is one of my favorite parts of the first chapter. It’s a fun place to unleash the power of the story and play around with fun lines and interesting hooks.

  15. Thanks for the interest. The link to my post on how to write that valuable first line is;
    http://writerchris.blogspot.com/2011/08/scene-design-first-sentence.html
    Regards

  16. I think the best opening line I’ve ever read is the beginning of The Dark Tower series by Stephen King, The Gunslinger.

    “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

  17. For some reason my home pc won’t let me comment from my Google account. I’ll try again from work with the link to my version of how to write a first line;

    http://writerchris.blogspot.com/2011/08/scene-design-first-sentence.html

    Hope this works. 🙂

  18. I’d read an article several years ago on writing opening lines. and they suggested the same thing you did. Leave an invisible question mark dangling in the air. 😀

  19. @Christopher: Good post! Thanks for sharing it with us.

    @Matthew: You’re the second person to have chosen that line! Goes to show that solidity is often aces over flashiness.

    @Gideon: Curiosity killed the cat – but definitely not the reader!

  20. This is a fantastic post. Great analysis of the single toughest job a novelist has. Will RT!

  21. This nicely broke down opening lines, and since I’m starting a new book today, it was great timing. Thanks.

    I don’t remember opening lines. The only ones I can recall are those that I’ve heard quoted like the one from Stephen King or “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

    However, if I’m not hooked by something within the first paragraph or two, I usually put the book down unless a friend has strongly recommended it.

  22. @Anne: Thanks for sharing the post!

    @Laura: It was an interesting exercise to back through my recent favorites and rediscover their first lines. A novel is really about the sum, not the parts. We forget the individual ingredients and remember only the overwhelming taste.

  23. Great post! I actually don’t remember first lines of books. Bits of conversation in the book, yes. But rarely the first lines. Sometimes the last. Actually, the last lines of several books may not stay with me word for word, but the essence of them do. 🙂

  24. “The first time I saw the tiassa was nine Real Years before I was born.” Steven Brust, Tiassa

    “Somewhere beyond my line of sight a man groaned, pathetically. It sounded as if he had reached the end of his reserves and was now about to die.” Walter Mosley, When the Thrill Is Gone

  25. @Liberty: The essence is what’s important. Last lines rarely stick with me either, but the endings, if they’re good, always do.

    @Phy: Like that first one, especially.

  26. Great advice for how to begin strong! : ) Beth

  27. Thanks for stopping by, Beth! Glad you enjoyed the post.

  28. A successful first line uses the same fuel as a riveting story uses. In a word: Conflict.

    Whether the confict is obvious, like the gunslinger, or more implicit like ” Well, Prince, Genoa and Lucca are now no more than private estates of the Bonaparte family” from War & Peace, it’s all about conflict.

    Whether it’s in yo’ face or just hinted at, first lines that use conflict draw a reader in.

    But that’s just my humbly informed opinion. I don’t have no kids, so I might not know what I’m talking about.

  29. Totally agree. The implicit question in the first line almost always hinges around conflict, either hinted at or explicit. You know what they say – no conflict, no story!

  30. “They killed the white girl first.”
    Toni Morrison, Paradise.

    That first line fully achieves shock effect. I remember reading it and thinking, “But the book is called Paradise! What HAPPENED??” And just like that, she got me. 🙂

    Great pointers. Thanks. 🙂

  31. Toni Morrison is a master of beginning in medias res and hooking readers with killer first lines.

  32. I can’t think of a single opening line, even to my favorite books!

  33. I know! Crazy, isn’t it?

  34. Well I’m late to the party here but someone got two of my favorites — Toni Morrison – “They killed…” , Stephen King – “The man in black…”

    But, nobody mentioned my all time favorite.

    “It was a pleasure to burn.” Fahrenheit 451

    Now It took me years to like the book. But that opening line was so memorable and lyrical and horrible it drew mw back again and again until at last I was doomed to get it and love it.

  35. Toni Morrison’s is especially great.

  36. Oh thanks! What a timely read. Even though I knew this, I didn’t execute it in my current manuscript. Thanks for being my muse this morning! Great site. Got your RSS on my Yahoo page.

  37. We can know so many things on an unconscious level, but not until we embrace them consciously and deliberately can we really take full advantage of them. So glad you’re enjoying the site!

  38. Leila Wilson says:

    Thank you for this very interesting and useful post. I found you today from reading “My Name is Not Bob” and following the links he always recommends and have signed up for your news letter et al and also bought three of your books from Amazon UK.

    I feel that while the first sentence does not necessarily mean that the rest of the book will be good, nevertheless without a first sentence that grabs the reader immediately, she or he may not bother to read any further. When I’m browsing for a book to read I always have a look at tbe opening lines first. A recent book I read and thoroughly enjoyed was “AZINCOURT” by Bernard Cornwall. Here is the opening sentence which hooked me straight away…….”On a winter’s day in 1413, just before Christmas, Nicholas Hook decided to commit murder”……Yes, I bought it!

  39. Thanks for stopping by – and for buying the books! You just became my Favorite Person of the Day. 😉

    I absolutely agree that a first line isn’t always an indication of the book to follow. I’ve read plenty of brilliant books with boring first lines. But if the author can demonstrate his skill right from the beginning, I’m much more inclined to believe he’s going to display that skill throughout the book.

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