What Makes a Novel’s First Line ‘Great’? 10 Qualities and 25 Examples

So many people judge a book by reading the first line that it seems like getting the first line right is crucial for success, especially these days when the market is flooded with novels. Yet, as I’ve researched what makes for a great opening sentence, I’ve noticed that the range of qualities is huge. In fact, the range is so huge that it seems to me that there will probably be a group of readers who will like your first line well-enough to buy the book regardless of its level of greatness. So, that’s a bit relieving.

Nevertheless, it seems smart to consciously work on writing the best opening sentence that you can in order to hook the reader right off the bat. Below are 10 qualities and 25 examples that will help you make your first line ‘great.’

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Click on the book titles below to be directed to each novel’s description page on Amazon.com. Or, for over a 1000 examples of opening sentences, click on this book.

1. Voice

The master storyteller Stephen King said in an Atlantic Magazine article what he thinks is most important in a first line:  “So an intriguing context is important, and so is style. But for me, a good opening sentence really begins with voice…With really good books, a powerful sense of voice is established in the first line.” He goes on to explain that the language of the writer–the sounds of the words put together–is instantly recognizable and unique, similar to the voices of well-known singers, like Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan.

In a way this is good news because you can be yourself. You have a unique way of saying things and writing your ideas. You can be you and people will connect with your voice. Here’s an example.

“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.

His voice comes out loud and clear.

2. Start with a Contradiction

Since the main goals are to capture people’s attention and entice them to buy the book, a great strategy for an opening sentence is to come up with an intriguing contradiction. Readers will find it interesting and want to know more in order to solve the puzzle–that is, see how the author is able to unravel the contradiction so that it makes sense.

“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day of January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.

“Ross Wakeman succeeded the first time he killed himself, but not the second or the third.” Second Glance by Jodi Picoult.

“While Pearl Tull was dying, a funny thought occurred to her.” Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler.

3. Shock and Awe

Another tactic is to jolt or surprise the reader so that it becomes immediately clear that this book is going to be powerful.

“They shoot the white girl first.” Paradise by Toni Morrison.

“I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I had looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a dumpster.” The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeannette Walls. Or, the opening line of her second chapter: “I was on fire.”

4. Create Curiosity

In contrast to the shock and awe tactic, a more subtle strategy is to make the reader curious, which in effect makes them want to understand something or learn more and the only way to gain understanding or learn more is by reading the book. Curiosity is a great motivator.

“It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.” City of Glass by Paul Auster.

“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 by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

5. Describe Conflict

Many first lines get right into conflict between characters or between the main character and nature. Conflict tends to catch people’s attention wherein they want to see some resolution, which makes them keep reading.

“One September evening when Walter Lasher returned from the city after a hard day’s work and was walking to his car in the station parking lot, a man stepped out from between two cars, walked up to him, and slapped him hard in the face.” The Slap by Stephen Millhauser.

“Back in the days when everyone was old and stupid or young and foolish and me and Sugar were the only ones just right, this lady moved on our block with nappy hair and proper speech and no makeup.” The Lesson by Toni Cade Bambara.

“A woman has written yet another story that is not interesting, though it has a hurricane in it, and a hurricane usually promises to be interesting.” The Center of the Story by Lydia Davis.

“Those old cows knew trouble was coming before we did.” Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel by Jeannette Walls.

6. Start in the Middle of An Action Scene

A popular opening sentence, especially in genre fiction, is one that throws the reader right into the middle of an action scene. The intensity tends to keep readers reading because they want to see how it turns out.

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” The Gunslinger by Stephen King.

“The only man still alive in the room smiled behind his dark mask.” The Wizard’s Mask by Ed Greenwood.

“”You’ve got to be kidding me,” the bouncer said, folding his arms across his massive chest.” City of Bones by Cassandra Clare.

7. Create Emotion

Perhaps, underlying every quality or strategy of a first line is the notion of creating emotion in the reader. Emotions drive away boredom and spark a connection, especially if they are sympathetic emotions like fear, anxiety, loss, or joy. Here are two examples from Pulitzer Prize winning journalism.

“The Burmese slaves sat on the floor and stared through the rusty bars of their locked cage, hidden on a tiny tropical island thousands of miles from home.” Are slaves catching the fish you buy? By Robin McDowell, Margie Mason and Martha Mendoza

“Sam Siatta was deep in a tequila haze, so staggeringly drunk that he would later say he retained no memory of the crime he was beginning to commit.” The Fighter by C.J. Chivers.

8. Start with a Character

Another popular strategy is to start a story with a character, often the protagonist but sometimes the antagonist. Less often do writers begin a story with a minor character, because it sets up the reader to focus on the less important character. Typically, writers reveal the name and often a full name, but sometimes they only offer a pronoun of he or she or some status label.

“Call me Ishmael.” Moby Dick by Herman Melville.

“The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.” A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor.

“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.” A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving.

9. Set a Mood

Compared to other qualities or strategies of first lines, setting a particular mood is less like a sharp knife and more like a comfortable pillow. Readers can settle in and get themselves ready for a good story.

“It was raining in Richmond on Friday, June 6.” Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

10. A General Truth

Many stories begin with an abstract, general truth–or supposed truth–about life, which sets the tone for the whole novel. The key point here is that the truth must represent the major theme of the story. It can’t be some random idea, even if it is really poignant, because it will throw the reader off. A few examples.

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.

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

“Don’t look for dignity in public bathrooms.” Big Machine by Victor LaValle.

What Do You Think Makes For A Great First Line?

Perhaps, after writing your first line, the best advice is to think: Would this first line grab my attention and make me want to keep reading? And, would this first line grab my specific group of readers’ attention and make them want to keep reading? In any case, since the range of qualities is so large (I narrowed it down to ten) and the examples are so many, what do you think makes for a great first line? Or, what has worked for you and your audience? Please leave a comment below. We’d all appreciate it.

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Clovis Whitman

Clovis Whitman is an independent author of coming of age and new adult fiction, because he has always been fascinated by the simple yet complex question of “Who are you?”

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