I consider myself something of a first line connoisseur. What do you mean, that’s not a thing?
Seriously, though, I have a pretty intense fascination with opening lines. I like reading them (I actually have a list in my Notes app with all my favorite opening lines), and I’m borderline obsessed with writing them. I love them in poems and novels and short stories. I’ve heard it said that perfect first lines contain the entirety of the work they represent, and while I’m not sure that’s entirely or always true, it certainly highlights how significant a first line can be. To boil it down: great first lines have the power to entice a reader enough that they wouldn’t dream of putting down your book/short story/poem.
So how on earth do you write a compelling first line? Here are a few methods to make your first line sing!
Use vivid imagery
Invite your reader into the world of your story with an image or feeling that cannot be ignored. It doesn’t have to be long or complex–in fact, with this method I tend to think shorter is better. Pick a specific image or sensation and make it as visceral, punchy, and vivid as possible.
“A screaming comes across the sky.”Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon
Make the reader ask questions they can only answer by continuing to read
Many great first lines introduce elements of world-building without explanation as a way to entice readers into the meat of the story. This can be incredibly effective as long as it’s not too confusing. Keep the language clear and simple to balance the unknown elements.
“The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.”The Gunslinger, by Stephen King
Introduce a theme that begs further explanation
Rather than opening in media res, or in the middle of the action, some great opening lines choose instead to posit a theme or a motif that will continue to be explored throughout the story. This can be risky, as the reader may not immediately identify or connect to the theme, but it can also be done very well.
“A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story…a writer is condemned to remember that moment, because from then on he is doomed and his soul has a price.”The Angel’s Game, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Introduce a character’s unique voice
If your story is very character driven, or told from a unique point of view, this may be the best way to draw your readers in to their particular voice, tone, or cadence.
“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.”The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
Play with time
Perhaps you want to hint at an event that takes place further along in your story than you’re starting the narrative. Or perhaps you want to tease something that happened in the past that led up to the moment your story begins. Either way, referring to something that happened in a time other than where your story is happening can be a compelling way to draw your reader in.
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Make your reader laugh
If your book is funny…why not make the first line funny as well? This is not my forte, so I don’t have any more salient tips than “be funny,” but who doesn’t love a hilarious opening line?
“In the beginning, the universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.”The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, by Douglas Adams
And that’s all I got! First lines aren’t always easy to write, but when you finally get it right it can be like a path opening up in the woods. Be patient with your craft, listen to how your story wants to be told, and good luck writing your own perfect first line!
How do you go about crafting first lines? Let me know your best tips or drop your favorite literary opening line in the comments section below!