top of page

Your Book's First Line

The first line of a novel plays a crucial role in capturing the reader's attention and setting the tone for the entire story.

The first line from Kelly Bowen's “The Paris Apartment”
 “The woman was nude.”

A well-written, effective first line:
 
1.      Hooks the readers. A compelling or intriguing opening line can make readers reader curious, prompting them to continue reading to find out more.
 
Fredrick Backman's first line in “Beartown.”
“Late one evening towards the end of March, a teenager picked up a double-barreled shotgun, walked into the forest, put the gun to someone else’ forehead, and pulled the trigger.”
 
2.      Sets the tone and establishes the mood of the story. Whether it's mysterious, witty, suspenseful, or emotional, the first line gives readers a glimpse of what to expect from the rest of the novel...or in the case below, short story.
 
Ernest Hemingway's “On the Quai at Smyrna”
“The strange thing was, he said, how they screamed every night at midnight.”
 
 3.      Introduces voice, giving readers a sense of the protagonist's perspective or the storytelling style. It can provide insight into the character's personality and draw readers into their world.

Thomas Savage's “The Power of the Dog”
“Phil always did the castrating: first he sliced off the cup of the scrotum and tossed it aside; next he forced down first one and then the other testicle, slit the rainbow membrane that enclosed it, tore it out, and tossed it into the fire where the branding irons glowed.”  
 
 4.      Creates tension, raising questions in the readers’ mind, compelling prompting them to read on to find answers. It instills a sense of curiosity and anticipation right from the start.
  
Diann Schindler's "What Lies Beneath the Willow"
“He had warned her repeatedly never to bring that child back.”

***

Let’s look more closely at George Orwell’s famous first line in “1984.”
 "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."
 
Hooking the Reader: This line immediately intrigues the reader with its unusual detail of clocks striking thirteen. No clock strikes thirteen. So, what's going on in this book?

Setting the Tone: The mention of a bright yet cold day in April sets a slightly ominous and dystopian tone.

Introducing the Voice: The line introduces Orwell's distinctive narrative voice... his simple, direct language that conveys complex ideas and concepts... in the unique world of "1984."

Creating Tension: The unexpected detail of clocks striking thirteen raises questions and creates a sense of eerie unease.
 
Herman Melville’s first line in “Moby Dick.”
"Call me Ishmael."

Hooking the Reader: This simple line immediately beckons the reader to engage with the narrator's story.

Setting the Tone: It introduces the intimate and personal, first person narrative style of the novel.

Introducing the Voice: Melville's iconic opening line establishes the enigmatic and confessional voice of Ishmael.

Creating Tension: Melville didn't write, "My name is Ishmael." This first line is mysterious and more compelling, as if this powerful man has quite a story to tell and readers don't want to miss it.
 
Of course, writing a first line that fulfills all of the elements above is quite a challenge and first lines can't always include each of the above.

It’s certainly something to strive for, not only to capture your readers' attention, but also because the process requires you to know your story, the purpose of your book, and emotion or mood you want your book to convey.

So, after you have completed your manuscript and before you send it to your editor, be sure to take time to write a compelling first line.

In fact, write more than one. Write five or more.

Then, walk away from your desk for days or even week. Don't think about those first lines at all.

Come back with fresh eyes and review your work.

Share your best lines with your writer friends and get their thoughts.

Think and rethink before your final decision.

It’s such arduous work, but, I encourage you to do it. You will not be sorry.

Do you have a first line or two to share with us?
Add in the comments below.
Let's start a dialogue.

Comments

Rated 0 out of 5 stars.
No ratings yet

Add a rating
bottom of page