Whether you're pitching a book to a literary agent, trying to lure readers to dig into their pockets and buy your book, or hoping to impress an editor, the first line of your novel counts. Big time.
Ever shake someone's hand only to discover they've got cold skin, sweaty palms, and a grip like a turnip? A weak first line has the same effect.
But what is a good first line? The Review Board at Writer's Relief reads many first lines when we have a call for submissions. Some first lines catch us more than others. A good first line will often multitask, accomplishing many things all at once. A first line can:
• Establish tone
• Hint at conflict or theme
• Lure with the promise of some reward (reward meaning: the emotional reward of reading the book)
• Cause an instant emotional reaction, connection to character, and/or fascination with scene
Some first lines are so intense and effective that they go down in history as household phrases ("Call me Ishmael," anyone?).
Look at the great first sentences in the slideshow below. The moral of the story is that the first line of your novel must be a good one, and it has to knock readers over, including literary agents and book editors.
That said, here's our caution: Don't overthink it. You shouldn't need to force an opening line when you're composing it. Trust those deeper, animal parts of your brain to do the hard work of creating it.
If the line you come up with doesn't feel natural, then it's probably not the right opening line for your book. So be patient with yourself and know that some writers don't come up with a good opening line until they've written the last line.
For more on writing and publishing, visit our website at www.WritersRelief.com. Writer's Relief helps creative writers research, target, and submit their work to literary agents and editors. Clients by invitation only. Review Board is currently open for submissions but will soon close, then put out another call in two to four months.
"Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself." If this line were in the middle of "Mrs. Dalloway," it might not be especially memorable. But to choose this as a first line, Woolf is setting up her book beautifully. Here are a few of the things we learn from this first line: • This book will only appear to be simple and straightforward. • Mrs. Dalloway probably does not regularly buy the flowers herself, and so something special is going on. • Mrs. Dalloway must state to someone that she is buying the flowers--is she excusing her actions? Her deviation from her usual course? • There is a sense of fate lurking here in the small act of buying flowers, a sense that something significant may or may not happen at any given moment. Hard not to love that! For those of you who feel that Woolf's stories are what contemporary editors might refer to as a bit too "quiet" for mainstream audiences, let's look at another classic...
"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." We simply couldn't do an article about great first lines without this one. Austen's first line is remarkable, memorable, and alluring for many reasons. Again, her first line multitasks: • It taps into (and suggests to us) the social values of her time. • It hints at a love story--and, dare we say it, sex. • It hints at conflict; already there are glimmers of clashes between the sexes and the factions of moneyed classes. • It hints at comedy. The tone is ever so slightly sarcastic. This is going to be a story of schemes and intrigue that will probably lead to love. So we can see how writers of yore were casting a spell over their readers with their first lines. But what about modern writers? Do the opening strategies of yesteryear still hold true today? Let's look at this well-known line:
"Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much." Whether or not you're a Harry Potter fan, you can see the allure of a line like this one, right? Clearly, we're not looking at normal people (normal people don't need to assert, so very firmly, that they are normal). From this line, we get a sense of humor and whimsy, as well as the first hints that there will be conflict with the Dursleys. It's a powerful line. And another modern classic:
"Behavioral science, the FBI section that deals with serial murder, is on the bottom floor of the academy building at Quantico, half-buried in the earth." This line is awesome. Here's what we can tell we're in for from this first line: • Emphasis on fact and science, a very real-life feel to the story • Unemotional description on the surface, but already there are rumbles of a coming storm • A cold, sterile, and somewhat secret (underground) location--this establishes mood • Serial killers (duh!) • A certain feeling of uncelebrated heroism for those people whose office is "half-buried in the earth"