Kick Off Your Novel With a Great First Line

by Marylee MacDonald in For Readers, For Writers Doing Revisions
First line from A Tale of Two Cities

The first line of A Tale of Two Cities uses a rhetorical device called anaphora.

The first line of your novel could be the most important sentence you write, but don’t worry about perfecting it until you’ve written all the way to the end. Your first and last lines are what connect the arc of the plot, and if you don’t yet know how the story ends, you can only make a stab at the beginning.

Why is a first line so important?

The rhythm of the first line draws readers into a story. We’re alert to the author’s voice whispering in our ear, and if we like that voice, we’ll read on.

Look at how much Charles Dickens packs into the first sentence of his novel, A Tale of Two Cities.

“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, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way–in short, the period was so far like the present period that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

Hear the passion and confidence in Dickens’ storytelling voice. Notice he doesn’t put in periods. That’s because he doesn’t want us to stop!

If you’d like my thoughts on novel openings, I’ve put together a free, dowloadable pdf. QUICK TIPS ON NOVEL OPENINGS

Dickens uses the rhetorical device anaphora; he repeats words and phrases. Dickens is writing about the French Revolution, and the readers of his epoch would have known that the two cities he’s writing about are London and Paris. His extended first line tells readers that this book will be about the Enlightenment and the foolishness that sprang from humankind’s excesses. The author continues his doubling technique throughout the book and right until the end. “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

The first line in Tale of Two Cities might not grab readers today–in fact, I can imagine high school students having no idea why they’re supposed to like this book–but, even so, there’s a reason the novel has stood the test of time.

Reader behavior

How does the anecdote about Dickens bear on contemporary novels?

If the first line hooks the reader, then your book has a chance in today’s crowded, literary marketplace. Think about how the “peek inside” feature affects online sales. Stand next to a book table in your favorite bookstore. Watch how people behave. They pick up the book and flip it from front to back. Then they open to the first page. They read the first line. Their eyes scan the first paragraph. They put the book down and pick up the next. Maybe this book will grab them!

Readers are like bird dogs. The bushes rustle. The bird dog stiffens and fixes its eyes on the bush. If a mouse scurries into its hole, the dog relaxes, but if a thrush beats its wings and attempts to fly, the dog pounces.

In general, readers pounce on books that “taste” like books they’ve enjoyed before. We read to be entertained. We read to be transported out of our humdrum worlds. We read because, as children, we loved being read to. But, whether readers like mysteries, action/adventure stories, or literary fiction, when readers begin a book, they hope the story will captivate them until the very last word.

Essentially, in the first two or three paragraphs the author’s goal is to draw readers into the story and, also, to give them a taste for its pacing. Just as readers select books, so do authors select their readers by how fast or slow they move the narrative forward.

The slow and friendly start

For a slow, but gripping, start to a novel, read the first chapter of Robert Stone’s The Damascus Gate.

As the book blurb states, Jerusalem itself is the book’s main character. Most readers won’t know the city, and Stone takes his time giving us a tour. Nothing bad happens, but readers pick up clues about impending danger.

A slow pace works well for readers who have the patience to see what will unfold. A writer whose instincts tell her this is the way to begin a novel will, perhaps, be inclined to introduce just the setting and a main character. Writer Stuart Dybek calls this “setting up the permissions.” If your novel will have a leisurely pace, then “set up the permissions” right from the start.

Begin en medias res

Readers of genre fiction typically demand a faster pace. Begin en medias res (in scene and at some crucial point in the action) and add in the background later. Think about how many mystery novels begin with the discovery of a dead body. Think about airport page-turners like Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October. “Captain First Rank Marko Ramius of the Soviet Navy was dressed for the Arctic conditions normal to the Northern Fleet submarine base at Polyarnyy.”

And, for an opening that starts in scene, but not a scene that the reader might expect from the sailing ship on the cover of the book, how about Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander?

“The music-room in the Governor’s House at Port Mahon, a tall, handsome, pillared octagon, was filled with the triumphant first movement of Locatelli’s C major quartet.”

First line in Patrick O'Brian's novel, A group of musicians.

Image from Europeana via The European Library

O’Brian places us in a particular room. He paints a picture. The word “triumphant” hooks us because we’re waiting to see what the triumph will be all about.

A first line that contains the book’s entire plot

The author of Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow, says that the first line of a novel must contain the novel’s entire plot. When I was a Writing Fellow at Arizona State University’s Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, I attended a luncheon where Doctorow shared that piece of advice. I took it to heart.

Here’s the sentence that begins my novel, Montpelier Tomorrow. “Time robs us of chances for reconciliation.” I could have stopped right there because the entire novel is, essentially, an elaboration on that first sentence. The story is about a mother who wants desperately to reconcile with her daughter, but time cuts short her chance to prove her love.

Does Doctorow follow his own advice? Here’s how Ragtime opens. “In 1902 Father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue Hill in New Rochelle, New York.” At first glance you might think, no, he’s just describing a big house, but as the paragraph continues, the reader understands that he is painting a picture.

“It was a three-story brown shingle with dormers, bay windows and a screened porch. Striped awnings shaded the windows. The family took possession of this stout manse on a sunny day in June and it seemed for some years thereafter that all their days would be warm and fair.”

Aha! Doctorow does follow his own advice. The entire plot of the novel is contained in that first sentence, the house on the hill standing for a father who had provided this emblem of wealth, and whose financial security will disappear.

Hook readers with the story’s voice

First line of Huck Finn by Mark Twain

Image from Europeana via The European Library

Mark Twain was one among several American writers who attempted to capture the cadences of English as it was being spoken in the New World. Today’s MFA (Master of Fine Arts) programs continue to stress the importance of voice in fiction.

David Foster Wallace is widely admired for his voice-driven fiction. Junot Díaz nails voice in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. “Our hero was not one of those Dominican cats everybody’s always going on about—he wasn’t no home-run hitter or a fly bachatero, not a playboy with a million hots in his jock.”

And as for voice, I hear echoes of Mark Twain in the opening of Russell Banks’ novel, Rule of the Bone. “You’ll probably think I’m making a lot of this up just to make me sound better than I really am or smarter or even luckier but I’m not.”

Compare that to the opening of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. “You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,’ but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.”

Not all novels will be voice-driven, but many will be, especially those told in the first person. If you can capture a character’s or narrator’s voice in the first sentence, so much the better.

Other things to think about: the five W’s

In the first line or first paragraph of a novel, it’s great if an author can hit at the five “w’s”—who, what, where, when, and why. The why is what’s at stake for your characters. Why are we going to read this book? Why should we care?

You don’t necessarily need conflict, but it doesn’t hurt to hint at danger. Use curiosity to pull readers into a story. Offer a surprise reversal in our expectations (such as O’Brian’s opening), and we’ll keep reading to find out what musicians could possibly have to do with the British navy.

The first line of your novel and when you should write it

You have to write a first line when you begin, but you would be a genius if you hit upon it right out of the starting block. In most cases you will not find your first line until you have written the very last line of your book. At that point you will know how everything turns out, and maybe some of those things will have surprised you.

If you’ve finished your novel and still haven’t found the perfect first line, study the first lines of other novels. Download this handout on 100 First Lines of Novels. Be inspired by these voices. See if any of them call out to you.

And one other thing. Carry a notebook at all times. Your first line may come to you in the middle of the night or when you’re awakening from a nap. Most likely it will come to you as a revelation.

If you have a favorite first line, please share your favorite first line in the comments!

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