Perfecting your opening line

I recently had the good fortune to attend a talk by one of my fave authors – the awesomely talented Meg Rosoff (How I Live Now) – at the Oxford Literary Festival. During the talk she mentioned how, for two years, she’d struggled to write her book Picture Me Gone. All she had was a lot of blank pages and the character’s name: Mila. It seemed hopeless. Until one day, when she was out for a walk, a little yappy dog bounded over to her. It’s name tag read…you guessed it, Mila. And like a glittery bolt of word lightning, the first line of her novel zapped into her mind:

The first Mila was a dog. Picture Me Gone, Meg Rosoff

The rest, as they say, was history. Which got me thinking about the importance of first lines. What should a good first line do?

Grab the reader’s attention

The key thing a first line should do is grab the reader’s attention - we’re talking full on pom-pom shaking, tassel-twirling action. Let’s face it, we’re all guilty of flicking to page one of a book and scanning the first few lines to see if it’s worth buying –an opinion can be formed that quickly – so it’s vital your first line instantly hooks the reader. So, what makes an attention grabbing first line? I think it falls into 3 key categories:

1. The dramatic statement

One way to start your novel is with a dramatic statement, such as Andy Weir’s The Martian, which is getting uber amounts of love, here on the League!

I’m pretty much fucked. – The Martian, Andy Weir

Why is he fucked? What’s going on? Who is fucked? Instantly, we want to know more. This is a great way to hook a reader, but do make sure the dramatic statement is relevant to your character and plot! Ideally, it should sum up the main crisis in the book in one succinct line, as in the example above. The crux of the story is the character, Mark, is screwed because he’s been stranded alone on Mars.

Another great example is:

It was a pleasure to burn. – Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

Gives you shivers, right? Who or what is burning? Why is it a pleasure? It grabs you and pulls you in, demanding you carry on reading.


My mother thinks I’m dead. -  Legend, Marie Lu

Why does Day’s mother think he is dead? Why hasn’t he told her that he is alive? How did he supposedly die?! SO MANY QUESTIONS.

2. The character introduction

If your main character is the hook of your novel, then your first line should set them up and immediately tell the reader why they’re such a special snowflake. Marissa Meyer does this masterfully in her sci-fi Cinderella retelling, Cinder:   

The screw through Cinder’s ankle had rusted, the engraved cross marks worn to a mangled circle. – Cinder, Marissa Meyer

In one short line, we know what’s unique about this version of Cinderella – she has an artificial metal foot. We also know she’s good with mechanics, which plays a key role in the narrative. Masterful!

3. The world set-up

If world-building is your strength and you’ve created a setting that could be a ‘character’ in its own right, then consider using your first line to set the scene. This example combines both a dramatic statement and sets up the world:

They called the world beyond the walls of the Pod “the Death Shop.” – Under the Never Sky, Veronica Rossi   

Like, wow, right? Instantly we know she’s living in a Pod (Why? How did this happen? What sort of society is this?) and that the environment outside this safe world is deadly.

Or, here’s an example from my own work:

An air-raid siren wails in the distance, alerting Black City citizens to lock their doors and turn out the lights. – Black City, Elizabeth Richards

In this example, (I hope) you get a sense Black City is a war-torn place, where its citizens live in constant fear. Fear of what though? All is explained in the subsequent sentences:

An air-raid siren wails in the distance, alerting Black City citizens to lock their doors and turn out the lights. They don’t want to be out in the dark alone. They might meet something dangerous. Something like me. – Black City, Elizabeth Richards

Are you hooked yet? J

What are your favorite first lines from novels? We'd love to hear your views!  


Christene said...

Wow, I am totally inspired!

Perilous Writing said...

Great article. One of my favorite first lines is from Neil Gaiman's Graveyard Book: "There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife."

And you can't beat: "In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit."

Sheena-kay Graham said...

Still working on my first line for my Circa w.i.p. Right now: "I am no one." Not sure if it's too plain or just plain spooky.

First lines in a book are stressed as very important. While I agree no one should forget the rest of the novel as well.

I am definitely getting Black City now. That first line was beyond amazing. And the second line clinched it. Putting it on my TBD wishlist for May. Oh and quick update, I checked out the prices and decided to pre-order Phoenix in paperback since it's under $9. Will get Black City next month.

ElizabethRichards said...

Woo! Thanks Sheena-kay! I hope you enjoy them.

And I really like your opening line! I'd read on :)

Lis said...

Wow! This post is totally kick-ass!
And yes! all those books bought me because of the first line! (well, at least the ones I've read).

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