How to Write The First Line of a Novel

by WiseFool

The first line of a piece of fiction is important, right? It hooks your readers and urges them to keep reading.

Your novel's first line is undoubtedly important, but I do feel that writers put far too much pressure on themselves to come up with that 'perfect' opening phrase. And, realistically speaking, there are only so many ways you can start a novel.

The point is, we can become so fixated with trying to formulate a captivating, exciting opening sentence that we may intimidate ourselves into writer's block or end up penning a phrase that later seems unnecessarily convoluted.

So, my first piece of advice for writing the first line of a novel is to relax. Try not to put unrealistic expectations on this one sentence. After all, its practical purpose is simply to introduce the rest of the story.

The Purpose of an Opening Line

What's the purpose of a novel's opening line?Author Mickey Spillane is often quoted as saying the first line sells the novel and the last line sells the next. He has a point here, most people will skim the opening of a book before deciding whether to read (or buy) it or not.

I know I do it.

After having read the blurb, I'll open the first page and see whether or not the writer's style appeals to me.

However, I've never reached a conclusion after just one sentence. Have you?

While I'm not dismissing the importance of creating a captivating opener (that is clearly one of the fundamental goals of a writer), I do think we can place too much emphasis on drama and forget that the other purpose of an opening line is simply to set the scene - this may be as basic as introducing a character, describing the weather or a protagonist's location - and, realistically speaking, that process of 'setting the scene' may not be conducive to pant-wetting excitement or pyrotechnics, although that obviously depends on your novel!

Famous Opening Lines

"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 Jane Austen

"Call me Ishmael."  ~ Moby Dick Herman Melville

"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." ~ A Tale of Two Cities Charles Dickens (I realize this is more an opening paragraph, but it is only one sentence)

Are All Opening Lines Doozies?

Novel Opening LinesI'd argue that the vast majority of opening lines, even very famous ones like those above and below, are generally quite workaday - excluding, of course, the exquisite rambling of A Tale of Two Cities.

"Call me Ishmael," for example is just about the most simple way to introduce the narrator, and yet it's also one of the most widely known first lines in all of literature. I don't think Herman Melville was sweating over that, although I might be wrong; my guess would be that he simply started.

And before I begin to dig into the various ways of opening a novel, that really is the most important thing to remember: just start. It doesn't matter whether you're opening line is lyrical or dramatic or funny or frightening...it just has to start the novel. 

More Famous Opening Lines

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." ~ Anna Keranina Leo Tolstoy

"I am an invisible man." ~ Invisible Man Ralph Ellison

"Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting." The Sound and The Fury William Faulkner

"I am a sick man...I am a spiteful man." ~ Notes from Underground Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Six Ways of Writing The First Line of a Novel

Six types of first lineThere are, of course, any number of ways to start a work of fiction, and you might have an opener that doesn't conform to any of these. 

However, as a rule of thumb, there are, typically, six ways in which to write the first line of a novel.

1, Scene setting - What I mean by scene setting is standard information that helps establish the time, location and/or climate of the story. A good example not already listed above would be, "It was a dark and stormy night..." from Paul Clifford by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton.

2, Conflict establishing - Usually, in a longer piece of fiction, you'll want to keep the main conflict under wraps for a little while longer, so this is an opener more regularly seen in short stories. However, there are no hard and fast rules about these things. A conflict establishing sentence, is sometimes referred to as a 'big bang'; you thrust your readers into an event that's already taking place and identify (or at least allude to) what your protagonist is up against. For instance, "It was the day my grandmother exploded." from The Crow Road by Iain Banks (quite literally a 'big bang'). 

3, Mystery - Iain Banks' first line from The Crow Road would also qualify as a bit of a mystery, as would most 'big bang', conflict establishing openings, because there is, quite naturally, so much that is still unexplained. However, a mystery first line doesn't necessarily have to thrust your readers straight into the action, it can be a more genteel introduction to something that doesn't make sense. A fine example is George Orwell's first line for 1984, "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." Essentially, a mystery first line is anything that will make your readers take a literary double-take.

4, Third Person narrator speaks to reader - Pretty self-explanatory stuff; this offers the chance for a 'chatty' third person narrator to speak directly to his or her readers. For example, "He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull." Lord Jim, Joseph Conrad

5, First person narrator speaks to reader - As above, except it's the first person narrator, who is likely to be your protagonist (but may not be), that addresses the reader directly. For instance, Mark Twain's 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."

6, Quote - In other words, an opening line that leaps straight into a piece of dialogue. For instance, "'To be born again,' sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, 'first you have to die.'" from Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses.

Of course, bear in mind that your first line doesn't have to be just one of these, there are many examples of opening lines that have a first person narrator speaking to the reader and establishing a conflict; or a quote that creates mystery. The possibilities are almost limitless.

What Kind of Opening Line is Right for Your Novel?

Here again, I'm inclined to say there are no rules. However, some of the six methods of writing the first line of a novel may work better with particular stories. For example, if you're writing a thriller or a horror, you may be drawn to a conflict establishing, 'big bang' first line - but this doesn't have to be the case.

Ask yourself a few questions before you begin, if you've already plotted the novel, where does it start and what's important for the reader to know? Is the fact that it's raining significant? Is it crucial for a reader to be familiar with your protagonist before we go any further; are there facets of their character or physical presence that need to be established early on?

Think about your narrator and how you want them to 'speak' to your readers. Are they likely to be conversational, like Huck Finn? Or would you rather a more formal third person narrator, who doesn't have any discernible character of their own?

As mentioned above, the important thing is to simply start your novel - wherever and however seems to fit the story best. If you later feel that it needs to be tweaked to add some mystery or create more atmosphere, then go ahead and do that. But don't put inordinate amounts of pressure on yourself to come up with an extravagantly poetic or exciting first line, because, when all is said and done, it is just one sentence among an awful lot of other sentences.

More Handy Hints and Tips on Writing Fiction

Exposition is important, and can even be vital, to your short story, novel or play. However, if handled incorrectly or clumsily, it can verge on painful for your reader.
Do you want to write a novel or short story with suspense, action, intrigue and realistic drama?
There are many ways that a good story can be ruined, bad dialogue is one of them. So, what are the secrets to writing natural, captivating speech?
In most cases, characters are the heart and soul of your story. Despite the fact that they only exist in a make believe world, they must be ‘real’ to you and to your readers.
Updated: 02/27/2013, WiseFool
 
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KaitlynDeMetro on 10/10/2014

I know this is an older piece but I really enjoyed it. I've always written little stories but now I've been toying with an idea for a full novel. I've got all the tools I need except for the courage to write it.

AngelaJohnson on 04/26/2013

This advice is even more critical for article writing. People on the internet can leave pages with just a click, so you need to impress them right away.

WiseFool on 02/28/2013

Thanks Mira and Catana for your views. I agree with you both. There's no disputing the first sentence needs to be good, but then so does the rest of the novel. It's silly to try to put all expectation on the opening line alone to appeal to a publisher or prompt a reader to buy.

Guest on 02/28/2013

Mira - that's a better way to think about first lines. If the first line is bad or mediocre, that's a warning. When I'm sampling a book, it usually only takes a few paragraphs to tell me whether I want to read more. If I'm still in doubt, I'll read a page or two. A blurb that makes the book sound interesting will encourage me to explore a bit further than I might have done, but no plot on earth can keep me reading a poorly written book.

Mira on 02/28/2013

One writer on Wordpress wrote about what he calls the Agents' Mantra: “I read the first sentence. If I like it, I read the first paragraph. If I like that, I read the first page. If that works for me, I turn the page.” So the first sentence is definitely important. I, for one, have more patience than that (and I expect most agents do, too, despite that statement): I read the first page and then 2-3 pages randomly. It has been serving me well.
I like your six ways of writing the first line of a novel :) Also that statement from Mickey Spillane. As for the blurbs, ah, those are terrible: I've read chick lit books that weren't funny in the least and the blurbs said "funny," "hilarious," bla bla. Terrible. I should have known better but being new to the genre I thought all chick lit books were funny anyway :).
Nice page :) Love that mug, too :))

Guest on 02/28/2013

I don't sell a lot of books because I don't write for people who just want to be entertained. (I also hate marketing, but that's another issue.) The long tail may be slow, but it's steady, and if you're willing to be patient, the kind of readers you want will find you. I'm still finding my way as a writer, so massive sales aren't that important to me.

WiseFool on 02/28/2013

Thanks, Catana. I agree, the assumption of so short an attention span is insulting. And even if it were true, are those the kind of readers you'd really want to be writing for? It wouldn't be enough to just have a first line with lots of razzmatazz. It puts ridiculous amounts of pressure on every single sentence in the book.

It's true, you can't please all the people all the time, so rather than trying to unlock that 'best seller' secret, I think all any writer can do is create something they'd want to read. There's a good chance others will feel the same way.

Guest on 02/27/2013

That pressure to create a perfect first line tends to come from people who assume everyone wants to write a best seller. It's the idea that you're in competition with everyone else and readers don't have the patience to get past the first line. I always want to ask them if they're serious. Readers are only going to give you a second's worth of attention or less before they decide a book isn't worth reading? One line? I don't think so. Frankly, that notion is an insult to readers.

Good article.

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