A good first line is one that draws the reader into the world of the story. Kick off your story with a sentence that makes the reader want to read the next one, and so on, until the end. A good first line can entice the reader by doing one or more of the following:
- show us a situation;
- paint a word picture;
- immerse the reader in a bath of feeling;
- ignite the reader’s curiosity;
- introduce a unique storytelling voice;
- or, sum up the plot.
Begin With Situation
As a writer, you want to grab readers as quickly as possible. Begin a story or novel with a situation that’s unstable, meaning untenable for the main character.
I had been sleeping on a friend’s floor for a week.
—Kathryn Chetkovic, “Appetites”
Couch surfing isn’t an ideal way to live. We will read on to find out how the narrator got in that fix and how she intends to get into a more permanent living arrangement.
Journalists learn to load their story ledes with the basic facts: who, what, where, when, why. The first line from Hemingway’s last novel shows his journalistic training. He leaves us in no doubt as to the story’s situation.
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.
—Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
Paint A Word Picture
Hemingway wrote a first line the way he’d been taught when he worked as a reporter. Contrary to the example above, you actually don’t need to provide the who-what-where-when-whys. There are many ways to start a story. If the first line paints a picture, the reader can immediately step into that scene.
Our first house, in the autumn of 1963, was a small, mustard-colored tract home in the older working-class suburbs of northeast San Diego.
—Poe Ballantine, “The Blue Devils of Blue River Avenue”
At five o’clock in the afternoon the light comes in yellow across the brown curling paint at the edge of the window sill and makes the stained white walls of the kitchen glow golden, makes the tired enamel at the bottom of the sink look like old ivory.
—“Monkey Park,” Madison Smartt Bell
You can ignore the when-where-why if your word-pictures allow the reader to conjure up a scene. That’s because one of your main jobs as a writer is to keep feeding the reader visual details. More than you might think necessary, you need to keep feeding specific images to the reader’s mind’s eye.
A First Line Immerses the Reader in Feelings
Don’t underestimate the power of feelings. Paint a picture and hint at the underlying feelings of the story. By “feelings,” I don’t mean happy feelings. I mean tension: a marriage falling apart, a health crisis, a childhood fear, tension with another character, or death.
On a good day (a good day being one on which they have not argued at breakfast, she has kissed him goodbye on the mouth at the door before they make their separate ways to work; they have plans for the evening that involve good friends, fancy clothes, white wine, and red meat) his throat goes loose with happiness.
—Diane Schomperlen, “Body Language Story”
Despite tests and retests—her mammogram dittoed across clinic walls like some sick Warhol print—Sarah had not understood her disease until she’d sketched the body it was quickly dismantling.
Doran Larson, “Morphine”
It filtered even into my childhood dreams, the fear.
— John Updike, “My Father on the Verge of Disgrace”
Feld, the shoemaker, was annoyed that his helper, Sobel, was so insensitive to his reverie that he wouldn’t for a minute cease his fanatic pounding at the other bench.
—“The First Seven Years,” Bernard Malamud
Mother died today.
—Albert Camus, The Stranger
Ignite the Reader’s Curiosity
In Mark Haddon’s novel, readers are drawn in by the spookiness of midnight and by the precision of the number 7, which is written as an ordinal, not spelled out the way it normally would be in fiction.
It was 7 minutes after midnight.
—Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-Time
Or, how about this?
Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu.
—Ha Jin, Waiting
Huh? Every summer he goes back to divorce his wife? How long will this continue? Why does he want to divorce her? What’s going on?
The same curiosity factor works in the first line below. We read to resolve the incongruity of these two clauses.
I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.
—Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex
Enchant Readers With A Unique Storytelling Voice
As children we anticipated story time, that magical hour between bath and bed. Neurologists have monitored brain waves and found that brain activity slows when we’re transported into that other world of fiction. (Read my post about sagas, an oral tradition.)
We may have outgrown bedtime stories, but every time I listen to storytellers, such as those on The Moth podcast, I gain new respect for the match between the tale and its teller. Voices are like fireflies, hard to capture and easy to smother. Each has a unique way of speaking, and each character brings a unique attitude.
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.
—Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
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
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.
—Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
We are intrigued by these voices, and we will hop on the magic carpet and go along for the ride. The voices can be reliable or unreliable. Lying might even rank higher than telling the truth when it comes to grabbing the reader’s attention. (Read my blog post about first-person point-of-view here.) Also, notice that it’s the voice—not the who-what-where-when-why—that compels us to read more.
Here are two more exceptional examples. Note their brevity.
Call me Ishmael.
—Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.
—Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
A First Line That Sums Up the Plot
The author of Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow, once shared this bit of advice from his many years as an author: The first line of a novel could sum up an entire plot. Though not every author begins a book with an overview or retrospective of the plot, I found plenty of examples where the author clearly wanted to signal the novel’s scope.
For Jane Austen fans, the foreshadowing in this first line hints at the story ahead—a widowed mum in reduced circumstances, trying to marry off her daughters.
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 and Prejudice
For storytellers who wish to tantalize the reader with hints of plot-points to come, this first line by Gabriel García Márquez “gives away” how the story will eventually turn out, but we keep reading because we want to know why.
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
Another epic, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, begins in medias res with a paragraph in French, a bit of a challenge for non-French-speakers. In contrast, Tolstoy began Anna Karenina with an overview of the plot to come. This opening reminds me a lot of what Jane Austen was doing.
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
—Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
I’ve saved my favorite first line until now.
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.
—Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Can there be a better, more melodious, first line than Dickens’s opening? I love the parallel construction in these sentences and the weighty, Biblical tone. In case you’re not familiar with the novel, the plot centers on London and Paris during the French Revolution.
What to Conclude From These Examples
I hope this post has illustrated the many strategies authors can use to draw readers further into the narrative. Stories can begin with painting a picture, with alerting us to something odd in a situation, or with a quick plunge into a character’s feelings.
The first line of a novel can begin in medias res, by summing up the plot, or by using one of the other opening gambits.
Please, please, please do not raise the curtain on your novel with an amnesiac character; a character brushing his teeth and looking in the mirror; or a description of the weather. (Agent Michael Carr talks about some of these beginner errors in a post on “Pitching: How to Hit a Home Run.)
Know, also, that you may not find your first line until you’ve written the last sentence.
I found this first line for my novel, Montpelier Tomorrow, after I’d gone through twenty plus revisions. I’ll include a bit more than the first sentence to show how the first leads to the second, which leads to the third.
Time robs us of chances for reconciliation. Time makes us liars. I wanted to save my daughter, and even now, I don’t know what made me think I could keep her from going through what I had gone through, widowed and pregnant, all at the same time.
—Marylee MacDonald, Montpelier Tomorrow
When you find your perfect first line, you’ll know it. And if you’d like to share your favorite first lines, either ones you’ve written or lines from your favorite books, please do so in the comments.
Marylee MacDonald is the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, a novel, BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD, a short story collection, and THE RUG BAZAAR, a chapbook. Her books and stories have won the Barry Hannah Prize, the Jeanne M. Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award, a Readers’ Favorites Gold Medal for Drama, the American Literary Review Fiction Prize, and many others. She holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State, and when not reading or writing books, she loves to walk on the beach and explore National Parks.