Learn How To Write Smashing First and Last Lines

8 1/2 Tips for How to Write Opening and Closing Lines Readers Will Love to Quote

Learn How To Write Smashing First and Last LinesWhen I’m scanning an Amazon preview to decide if a book is going to be worth my time, the first test is always the opening line. A sloppy, casual, or plain-Jane opening line instantly makes me suspect I’m looking at the work of an author who is an outright amateur or, at the best, someone who lacks that special “it” factor that takes prose from “all right” to “awesome.”

Similarly, closing lines are every bit as important in their own right. Even though few people will read your closing line prior to finishing the book, it is still arguably the second most important line in the entire story, right after the first line. It brings your story full circle, leaves your readers with an indelible impression of your book, and, once again, proves whether or not you’re the master of your story.

That’s a lot of pressure to put on two little lines. But no worries! There’s actually a handy little checklist you can use when figuring out how to write opening and closing lines that will stick with readers long after their initial Amazon scan. Perhaps your opening and closing lines may even end up on most-quoted lists right alongside such luminaries as Austen, Melville, and Tolstoy!

4 (and 1/2) Tips for How to Write an Opening Line That Shows Readers You’re the Boss

I carp a lot about how tough beginnings are. One of the top reasons beginnings are hard is because the entry point—the opening line—is perhaps the hardest part of all. Occasionally, lightning will strike and the perfect line will zing from the ether to your brain to your Scrivener doc. (And all the angels sing!) But for all those times when you sit down in excitement to begin your amazing new story, only to spend the first hour staring at the blinking cursor, wondering how in tarnation to find an opening line that works, here are four tips to get your started.

1. Reveal Your Story

Whenever possible tell the whole story of the novel in the first sentence.—John Irving

John Irving is famous for writing his closing line first, and that perhaps is the secret to his opening lines. When you know where the story is going, you then have the ability to craft an opening line that asks all the right questions. Your opening must do more than hook readers, it must immediately fulfill the promise of your premise’s hook and thematic question.

Naturally, this doesn’t mean spelling out the entire plot (except for when it does). What it means is that the essence of your story’s questions, its angst, its focus, and its themes should all be swimming in the subtext of your opening line. Your opening line tells readers what your story is about. Your story can be amazing, but if you fail to share that in your opening line, how are readers ever going to know?

A Prayer for Owen Meany

2. Ask a Question

Everybody knows the most important job of any opening line is that of hooking readers. But how to plant that hook is somewhat less clear. Actually, all four of the tips we’re looking at here are ways of hooking readers, getting them to sit up, take notice, and say, Yes, this is a book I want to read. However, this second tip is the one most blatantly about hook-planting.

Get readers to ask a question about your story. Pique their curiosity. Tell them something in that opening line that doesn’t quite make sense. Create a sense of dichotomy, two different ideas juxtaposed against one another, creating a sense of disharmony that can range from the blatant to the ever-so-subtle subtextual. Show readers right from the start that something is amiss in paradise.

Time Traveler's Wife

3. Be Brilliant

Long ago, writing friend Melissa Ortega made a comment about opening lines that has made her an angel on my shoulder, whispering in my ear, with every opening line I write. She said something in the vein of:

The opening line should be brilliant. If it’s not, why bother reading the rest of the book?

In short, that opening line better sparkle. This isn’t just another sentence in your story. This is the sentence. This is the one sentence, out of all your sentences, people might actually remember after they close the book. This is your one chance to be brilliant in a way that is both memorable and useful (in that, if readers like this line, then, hey, they just might read the next one!).

Avoid bland openings. Don’t open with: “The sun rose” or “Sam opened his eyes” or even “The battle raged on.” Look for color, depth, power, and specificity.

Gone With the Wind

4. Create a Voice

The most important element in a story opening is your protagonist. While it may not always be possible to introduce the protagonist by name (or even pronoun) in the very first line, you want, at the very least, to immediately introduce readers to this person via the narrative voice of the opening line.

Tone, in itself, can create the kind of hooking juxtaposition we talked about in #2—and, in turn, that skillful use of irony can add just the kind of brilliance mentioned in #3. Whether your character is so on-the-nose in observing a situation that she creates her own irony for more observant readers, or whether the character is ironic enough to prove her awareness of the drama about to unfold upon her—both can be shared subtextually with readers before the character herself is ever directly mentioned.

Told You So Kristen Heitzmann

4 1/2. Leverage Your Title

Okay, so I lied. Your opening line isn’t actually the first thing readers will read. Your title is. That means you have an extra playing piece to work to your advantage. Your first line will be read in the context of your title. Your title will become a clue that helps readers interpret your first line. This means, if you use it right, your title can create one more layer of interesting irony, theme, and curiosity within your first line.

Example:

Note how all the above titles offer insight into their first lines. If you mismatched any of these titles and their opening lines, your first impression of all these stories would change drastically. Go ahead—try it!

4 Tips for How to Write a Closing Line Readers Will Never Forget

My closing lines usually find themselves, but not before I experience several small moments of panic, wondering how I’m going to wind everything down in the final chapter and find the one perfect line that will definitively tell readers “this is THE END.” More than that, good closing lines must sum up your story (without being on the nose) and leave readers with exactly the right flavor.

1. Choose Your Best Line

The last line is as important as the first, if for different reasons. End the story on your best, or second best, line. Don’t write past it. This is the line that echoes in our mind when the story’s over.—John Dufresne

If you do it right, people will want to stop and read your last line over one more time just to savor it—and the experience of your wonderful novel as a whole.

Book Thief

2. Watch Your Rhythm

Unlike your opening line, your closing line will be under certain structural restraints. Like the closing notes of a song, it must guide readers to a sense that the story is, indeed, over.

In some stories, a disorientingly abrupt ending may be appropriate. But in most, you will want to ease your readers to the finale, usually with a series of longer sentences leading up to a final short sentence that puts the period on the whole book.

Although you want to maintain a tone consistent with the rest of the book’s narrative, your final lines may be the most poetic in the entire story. Certainly, nowhere else are the poetic techniques of rhythm and meter more useful.

Shawshank Redemption

3. Look for Symbolism, Subtext, and Irony

Your closing line is arguably the most thematic of the entire story. Although you never want to come out with an on-the-nose “moral of the story” or “this is what the story was really about”—you do want to take the opportunity to underscore the story behind the story.

But if you can’t come right out and say, “And so twoo wuv twiumphed again!”—how do you accomplish this? This is where your most powerful authorial weapons become even more valuable: symbolism, subtext, and irony. Look for thematic motifs you can pluck from earlier in the story to reinforce here at the end. Look for ways to state your thematic premise without stating it—perhaps by stating the opposite, or having characters talk around it, letting the subtextual truth hang heavy amidst the irony.

Once an Eagle

4. Answer One Question, Raise Another

The finale of your story must answer your story’s most important questions—the Dramatic Question and the Thematic Question (about your plot and theme, respectively). It must tie off all the loose ends and satisfy your readers’ burning curiosity. It must present a sense of finality.

But you don’t want too much finality. You don’t want to completely slam the door on your readers’ experience of the story. Instead, you want to leave them the sense that the story and the characters will continue to live and breathe beyond the covers of the book. Just as in life, one saga ends only so another can begin. Even as you stamp “The End” on this story, leave readers with that sense that a new story is just beginning for your characters (whether you’re planning a sequel or not).

Ender's Game

***

Excellent opening and closing lines are loving touches from masterful authorial hands. They’re a sure sign their authors are aware of their stories, in control of their prose, and—as a result—very likely to be able to spin a story readers can trust in from beginning to end. In learning how to write opening and closing lines that delight readers, keep these eight (and a half) tips in mind and have fun creating something special.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What do you find most challenging about how to write opening and closing lines for your story? Tell me in the comments!

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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. Ms. Albina says:

    Good article, Here is my opening scene

    “Yes! Yes, I will!” Jewel gushed as she sat bolt upright, waking from her dream-riddled slumber. Hmm, will what? she wondered, groggily perplexed at not being able to recall any details of her dream. It was unusual for her to not remember her dreams upon waking, which usually she recalled in vivid detail. Shaking off her bewilderment, Jewel stretched and arose to greet the day.
    Forty fathoms down, deep in the turquoise sea, a community of merfolk lived in a beautiful aquatic garden. This was a special place of unusual flora and exotic sea life. Numerous charming dwellings of the merfolk were hidden amongst the tall wavy fronds of slender sea palms. Colorful fish of every sort swam along the sculptured rosy-hued coral. Life seemed richly blessed for the residents of this special place.
    Nestled in the coral nooks of an underwater cavern were large and small wooden chests laden with treasure, containing pearls and jewels. On one side of the cavern, there was a magical door bearing the crest of the “Mera” clan above, it and one could swim through this passageway if one knew where to look. The door was enchanted – invisible to human eyes, but not to the good-hearted merfolk. Beyond the door, there was a beautiful palace gleaming resplendently in all the different shades of the sea. Merfolk would often swim past the palace, admiring its beauty, wishing to be among the fortunate ones who gained entry and could behold the interior.

    Do you like what is written so far?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good use of color! However, in general, it’s not considered a good idea to open with a dream.

      • Ms. Albina says:

        Ok, This is the opening chapter for Lotus book 1

        It was a warm sunny day on Elda Lamore Island in the enchanted gardens on Planet Avanaria. There was no cloud in the sky.
        Lotus was talking to her mother’s priestess Cara about the day since it was her birthday and also Dylan’s her fraternal twin. She had a young sister named Serena who was two years year. Since it was a special occasion Lotus had pearls woven into her raven hair, which was streaked with dark lavender. She wore a flower crown with two pearls on her head. Lotus wore a turquoise gown across her bronze colored skin and leather sandals on her feet. Lotus’s eyes were sea green.
        I wonder where my brother is. Lotus wondered.
        Dylan, Lotus’s fraternal twin brother had raven curly hair and sea blue eyes. He wore a blue tunic and green leggings over his bronze colored skin. Dylan was with his parents, Leilani and Zane Merrick and his younger sister Serena.
        Serena Pearl, Lotus’s younger sister also had raven curly hair but it was streaked with dark violet. Her eyes changed with her mood like her mom Leilani’s did, Serena’s eyes were sea green today. She wore a dark purple gown over her bronze colored skin.
        Their parents, Leilani and Zane, both had raven hair. Their eye colors were different since their eyes did change with their moods. Today, Leilani’s eyes were sea green and Zane’s eyes were sea blue.
        Leilani wore a turquoise gown embroidered with a dolphin pattern on it.
        Lotus’s dad, Zane wore a turquoise tunic, blue leggings and leather sandals on his feet. He was the tallest of the bronze-skin gods of the serene waters.
        Leilani was the second tallest of the immortals and she was known as “ the goddess of the serene waters”.
        They were all out on the lounge chair by the pools.
        Lotus, with Cara beside her, walked to where her parents and sister and brother were.
        Cara was a seven feet one inches tall mer-priestess with dark hair and violet eyes. She wore a blue gown over her mocha colored skin.
        Suddenly, a disturbing scene flashed on Lotus and her mother’s minds eye as they both had the same vision at the very same moment.
        In the vision, both mother and daughter saw different shades of color of fire.
        The flamed fire was colors of gold, blue, green, purple, yellow, and orange covering a village.
        Then light came out of Lotus’s hand the same as her mer-tail. Turquoise and Dark lavender was the color coming out of her hands.
        Her mother, Leilani also had light coming out of her hands.

        What do you think? Yes I plan on revising it.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          I recommend digging for the hook question. What is the inherent conflict here that sets up the scene? What is the character’s scene goal that keeps her moving through the scene? I would also recommend cutting the descriptions of clothing and character appearances, especially of any character who is not yet physically present in the scene. You don’t want to info dump this and especially not at the beginning of your chapter. The first job of a chapter opening is to make readers curious about an apparent anomaly in the character’s world.

          • Ms. Albina says:

            Ok, This is the opening scene of the Planet.

            The island Elda Lamore was large, it had mountains, rivers and lakes. There was an abundance of trees, flora and fauna; which creates flourishing homes for varied wildlife and for the people whom reside there. There are six smaller islands that circled Elda Lamore, and they too are vibrant lush habitats for many.
            The palace was nestled in the foothills Elda’s mountains. The palace grounds cover about 2,000 acres. It has lush forests around two sides of it. There are farmlands where peasants grow produce both for the royal family and servants, but also enough to feed everyone on the island. Nearer to the palace was the enchanted gardens that were well groomed, and it was truly a place of beauty and serenity. Inside the gardens, are pools for beautiful fish and aviaries of exotic birds whose colorful plumage rivals those of the myriad flowers that create places for delicate butterflies and honey bees that create the most delicious honey on the planet.
            All around are well-manicured lawns and sculpted bushes. The sweet scent from flowering fruit trees sooths and yet invigorates at the same time. Near the palace was a large dolphin fountain where beautiful koi and other colorful fish swim for the delight of visitors. Peacocks and other large colorful birds stroll around the grounds. Off to the left of the palace was a series of cottages and huts. These are for guests. Healers and servants used one especially large building; it was the infirmary to house the ill and injured. Near the cottages are three salt-water pools one is very large there was also two in the palaces private courtyard for the royal family. Each cottage and hut also has private pools in their baths. The healing heaven has four pools for those too ill to leave the building. It is important that merfolk to be able to immerse in salt water every seven hours that they reside on land.
            Merfolk can live on land as long as they can have salt-water pools or the sea nearby. When they change back to their natural state they get fish tails where their hops and legs would be and gills behind their ears with the gills they can breathe both air when out of water and breathe under the water just like the fish they share the seas with.
            Away from the rest of the palace buildings are stables for horses and livestock.

            I am going to revise this. Do you like what is written?

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Again, I recommend hunting for a story hook, rather than opening with a long description of setting that doesn’t advance the plot.

        • Ms. Albina says:

          I am going to start with their visions.

          Here is Leilani book 1 old draft prologue

          Prologue

          In the Azurian galaxy there were eight planets that were warmed by twin suns. From the suns a goddess was born. This goddess named herself Maia, the mother of all creation. She wasn’t happy with the eight existing planets so she created one. Avanaria looked down on the planet she created. She was pleased and decided this planet-in addition to having twin suns-would also have twin moons. She named her new world after herself for she was alone. So the planet Avanaria was born.
          The goddess of Avanaria created beautiful seas and filled them with manner of life. Then she created the mountains and islands of various sizes upon which grew all luscious vegetation: flowers, vines, and tall beautiful trees. She placed fresh water lakes, rivers and streams through out the verdant landscape. She created birds over every color had she could think of and then created animals of all shapes and sizes. Then she scattered all these living things upon the numerous islands.
          But the goddess felt something was missing…intelligent beings! So she created many different species of magical beings-shape shifters, fairies, elves, dwarfs and different lesser deities. Her favorite were the mer-people. She was so pleased with them that she made them immortals and also made them gods to help her govern the rest of the planet. Now some of the other beings were also immortal, but they lacked control, and some of abilities. The merfolk had possessed. Avanaria became somewhat jealous, which led to this sage. Enjoy the adventure!

          What do you think?

          Ms. B Albina

  2. onewordtest (@oneword_test) says:

    I have never been great with opening in closing lines and I’ve sadly never really thought about them. My current project I actually tried with the opening, although don’t have any ending line yet:

    The hospital smelled like nothing. All the iodoform chemicals, and scrubbed clean upholstery, and cool A/C in the atmosphere mingled together to smell like nothing – that sort of nauseous inhale on your nostrils of liminal, static, unbreathable space. There were a lot of smells that Rane couldn’t stand, but nothing was the most overwhelming and unbearable one he could imagine.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Piques my interest! Both about the hospital being scrubbed clean, and the character being sensitive to smells.

  3. I’m late to comment on this post, but I wanted to tell you it inspired me to find a better opening line for my WiP. My original opening line was super bland and had no suspense (a difficult thing since the novel opens in paradise). I figured out one that was better, and now the closing line echoes the opening line.

    For context, this is a somewhat literary novel about the life of Eve.

    “I live, and it is good to live. In the moment that I know I live, the absence of life that was my reality mere moments ago is banished from my mind and memory.”

    And the closing line:

    “‘Adam, I am afraid to die.'”

    There’s an epilogue, but since it has a different setting and different characters, I consider the last line of the last chapter my closing line.

    Anyway, super helpful post. Thanks as always for the well-thought-out advice.

  4. Emmaline says:

    I’m currently writing a book that is loosely titled “Game of Fire”. (I’ve just finished Chapter One, but I did a prologue.) I have big hopes for this story and I plan on making it into a novel. It’s a fantasy/comedy and it is about a very skilled villain trying to defeat her archnemesis who happens to be her best friend from her childhood. (I know, it’s quite cliche, but I like it.)

    The first line is as follows:

    “Ever since I was young, I was a deceptive little critter, which was why, at the tender age of six, I was out of bed and snooping on my parents’ hushed conversation in the kitchen.”

    Constructive criticism, anyone?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good job! As long as the parents’ convo is interesting enough to be a good payoff for the hook, you’re in business. 🙂

  5. I’m rather late, but perhaps you’ll reply anyway. I’m only about a third of the way through the novel, so I don’t have the final sentence yet. I find the end often changes a bit as I go through the first draft. With my first sentence, I’m trying to portray tension that will keep the reader going through setting the stage and introducing many characters. Here is what I have at this point:

    “When the messenger galloped off from King Bernardo’s camp, Prince Gabriel was at the royal palace of Iberia, playing his morning game of chess.”

    Then I take a birds’eye view of the palace, telling how various characters are occupied, before zooming in on a POV. Gabriel and his twin sister Angelica alternate POVs. This chapter is told from her perspective, but I wanted to start with Gabriel, so boys won’t see this as a girls’ book.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      To some extent this is personal preference, but I generally dislike “birds-eye view” openings. A well-done omniscient POV is one thing, but I see it so seldom that as a reader browsing potential books, I rarely trust it. In regards to the first line itself, the messenger is a good tidbit, since we immediately wonder what his message is. Otherwise, however, a little more pep, a little more dichotomy and characterization would be nice here.

  6. Just read this post today and changed my first and last lines in American Gold.

    Original 1st line: Marie sat across from her nine-year-old stepsister, Milena, and picked at the noodles in her soup.

    New 1st line: Where did she belong? Certainly not here, where she was just an unwelcome guest.

    Don’t want to share my line, but I will share your post with my writer friends.

  7. Madelaine Bauman says:

    Found this post really helpful in knowing where to begin with opening and closing lines and how to find them. They’re really hard to get right.
    Working on my opening line, on draft two of my fantasy novel, and this is a tentative opening. I’m still wondering if it needs more of a punch or more of…something.
    It’s a start, at least. I don’t have a closing line yet to match this opening line.

    She didn’t believe in gods or in miracles. Not anymore.
    She could hear the priestesses singing down below, a sweet, melodious song. Leaning against the iron tub, soaking in the warmth, Danica closed her eyes. Tried to shut them out.

  8. Ruoxin Cai says:

    How about this one:

    “It was a sunny, cheerful day.
    Unfortunately, there was a war going on beyond the castle.”

    That’s the first line for my story.

  9. I have written a prologue, but I’m not sure if it’s worth it. It explains the setting, the emotions of the people living there, the higher ranks. But it has nothing on introducing the plot, and I feel like it hasn’t got a good hook. Should I take away the prologue and try again with something else for the start, or edit the first chapter to reel the reader in?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think you’ve answered your own question. 😉 From the way you’ve described it here, there’s no reason to keep the prologue.

  10. Samiul Akbor says:

    I did not really think of my first line. I managed to do something really engaging, but that was all. I might change my first lines to this :

    When the wind sings, it never brings joy. Joy hasn’t been in the thief’s life for a long time. For as long as he’s lived, there was no joy only pain. Once, in his naivete, the lone figure assumed that joy would replace his pain. That he could finally be healed.

    But, the young man understood that it was a lie.

    Pain was all there was. It is all there will ever be.

    What is your opinion? Can you give some advice? The title of my story was changed from the Black Lyre to the Dark Melodies. Should I keep my original title?

  11. DirectorNoah says:

    Hi Katie,
    I’ve been revising the first and last lines of my WIP after reading this post, trying to incorporate the tips above, and I’d really appreciate your feedback and advice on what I’ve come up with so far.

    The first line is:
    No one escapes the Devil’s Curse. Those words echoed in Helen Taylor’s mind like a siren. But here she was, driving at high speed down the country road, a frenetic urgency in her need to get away.

    And the closing line:
    He smiled. For the most guarded, suspicious souls are always the easiest to trap.

    What do you think? Do these lines need editing or are they okay?
    Thanks very much in advance!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Closing lines are hard to judge out of context, but from where I stand, both look good!

  12. This is great, but is there a best time to consider revising opening and closing lines? I’m currently writing the rough draft of my novel, and trying to come up with an opening and possibly a closing line for my book, and dying when I look at a professional example. xD

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Let’s put it this way: There’s never a bad time. I revise my opening and closing lines, as needed, with every draft.

  13. Dear Mam Weiland,

    Great article and I thank you a lot for sharing it.

    I am trying hard but I just can’t get a 1st line going. As of now, my effort is here (I will keep trying)-

    “So here is what I did,” I tossed the car keys onto the table, “I quit my job.”
    Kanak curled the edge of the newspaper she held before her face, glanced at me and then went back to reading.

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