Write a Captivating Opening Line

I hope you all are sharpening your pencils and putting together some fabulous novel-openers. I can’t wait to read them! (I’ve read a bunch already and I can tell you… this isn’t going to be easy to judge. You all are pretty talented.)

The first thing to know about “first lines” is that they are not going to make or break you. Sure, it’s a lot of fun coming up with great ones. But in a novel of a hundred-thousand words, we have to keep those first twenty-or-so in perspective. As long as the first line makes someone want to read the second line, and that line makes you want to read the third… you’re on the right track.

That said… don’t you just love a great opening line?

The fun thing about writing a novel is that you get to choose… everything. And you can choose what kind of opening line you want, what type of sentence appropriately sets up your novel. You can choose to set a stage or create a setting. You can reveal a character. You can drop the reader into the middle of a scene. You can introduce conflict. You can have your character speak a line of dialogue. There’s no one right way to do it. You might want to try several different “types” of first lines if you’re doing this little contest (that’s why I allowed five entries). It’s a good exercise in stretching your imagination and playing with words.

Today I looked at some of my favorite first lines from novels, and asked myself why I liked them. I found each one appealed to me for a different reason. It might have:

-been clever
-been thought-provoking
-brought an immediate smile (or stab) of recognition
-struck me as poignant
-painted a really cool word picture
-set up an intriguing mystery
-introduced a character I want to know better
-made me laugh
-drawn me into an unfamiliar world
-used words in a beautiful way

The one thing they all have in common is they make me want to read more. They immediately draw me into the universe of the novel by the unique voice that first line begins to establish.

I know one of the trends lately is to come up with stunningly clever first lines, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But not every novel requires one of those. Some need a more understated approach.

People say the best first lines introduce conflict right away. I believe that can be true, but it’s not the only way to write a first line. Most of my favorites give a small hint that something is going to go wrong, or something already has gone wrong.

There is no formula for a first line. It should elicit interest, pique something in the reader, speak to their heart or their intellect or their funny bone. It just has to work. Some of the best opening lines stand remarkably well on their own, having enough meat to allow you to chew on it awhile.

Here are a few popular opening lines from famous novels:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
~ Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (my favorite first line ever)

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
~ Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
~ J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.
~ Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups

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

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.
~ Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

All this happened, more or less.
~ Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.
~ Anita Brookner, The Debut

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.
~ C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.
~ Graham Greene, The End of the Affair

~ Keep those opening lines coming! ~

  1. Bryton says:

    I love the C.S. Lewis opening line. It drags you right into the story. The other one that should be mentioned on your short list is the opening line to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. “Call me Ishmael.”

  2. I always was concerned in this subject and still am, thanks for putting up.

  3. Bowl says:

    Hello, you used to write excellent posts, but the last several posts have been kinda lackluster… I miss your great writing. Past few posts are just a bit out of track! tea infuser

  4. Philx123 says:

    My favourite has to be from The Go-between:

    “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

    The whole tone, and much of the story is set up from there.

  5. Melanie says:

    >The first line of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” my favorite novel and arguably one of the top 100 in American literature, is actually quite boring.
    “‘When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”

    It sets up why Jem had time to spend with Scout, but doesn’t hint at the depth of story to come.

    Now, the first sentence to “Look Homeward Angel,” hints at things to come. It’s almost never ending and is filled with dictionary words. Sorry, I struggled through to the end after a visit to Asheville, but will never be able to call myself a fan.

  6. Linda Harris says:

    >My favorite first line is from a non-fiction book: “My grandmother had just gotten out of jail.” It’s by John Ortberg, from When the Game Is Over, It All Goes Back in the Box. He’s talking about Monopoly, of course, but it just struck me when I read that first line.

  7. Pam Halter says:

    >I just got back from the Mt. Hermon conference this morning. Andy McQuire did a great class on details, which included first lines.

    Maybe I’ll give this a try before we leave for Disney on Friday.

  8. Tiffany Stuart says:

    >I’ll send a line or two in soon…

  9. Timothy Fish says:

    >What you said about a first line not making or breaking the author’s story is absolutely true. While its hard to say that anything Mark Twain wrote is bad, the first line of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn doesn’t compare to many of the first lines included in this post and yet the book holds its own with these books, if it doesn’t overshadow them. Twain’s voice is clearly heard in the first line, but he does some things that keep it from being great. It is hard to read. It is hard to remember. He breaks the fourth wall and references the prequel, but people who read the book don’t care. Even so, I love a great first line, when it works; I hate great first lines, when the rest of the book doesn’t match.

  10. Manoranjan says:

    >Though I am no voracious reader of novels, all those opening lines listed are great ones.

  11. Katie Hart - Freelance Writer says:

    >Yes – love the C.S. Lewis one!

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