How to Write the First Line in Fiction

by JoHarrington

It is the worst of lines, it is the best of lines. That all important first line can determine whether anyone reads on.

Staring at a blank sheet of paper (or text document) can be terrifying. You have to get it right. Too many creative impulses get nullified at not knowing where to start.

If you're reading this line, then my first one did its job.

Understanding the purpose of the first line, and seeing how other authors have combated it, will help you construct your own.  Good luck!

Step One: See the First Line for What It Is

It's slightly more than just the opening bit of a glorious tale. In fact, it needn't have anything really to add to the story at all!

The first line has one job only. That is to make readers want to read the next line.  From there, they will be finishing the paragraph, then the page, then the whole story.

Forget about scene-setting.  That is sooo the next paragraph. Your first line doesn't even have to make too much sense in isolation, as long as it is barbed with hooks. Interesting things. Things to make the average mind wonder, and seek to find an answer.

I just did it to you. Look at how I opened this section - 'The first line has one job only'. Did you immediately ask 'what job?' or else query my assertion?  That's great!  You read on to find out.

The first line lures. It advertizes. It acts like a billboard enticement.  Come and see my wares!  Enter in here folks!  Wonders!  Greatness!  Things to astound your imagination!

At least it does in theory.  Your readers will be the judge on how well you deliver in the long run. But if you get that first line right, then at least you will have readers ready to judge.

Buy T-Shirts for Writers

Some humorous slogans to emblazon across an author's chest.

Step Two: Get Tips From the Classic Authors

If a writer has stood the test of time, then their words must be worth reading.

Grab your favorite novel or short story. Open it to the first page and look at how it began. What hooks were laid in those initial words?  Enough to make you read on, I'll warrant.

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...

Perhaps one of the most powerful first lines ever came from Charles Dickens, in A Tale of Two Cities. How did you feel reading it?  What questions did you ask? What did you want to find out? The line has so many hooks that it runs like a barbed wire fence.

What was the best of times?  What was the worst of times?  How can you have both the best and worst times at the same time? Which was the age of wisdom? What was so foolish about the age? Hold on! Did he just say that this age was both wise and foolish?  Are we even talking about the same age? 

Moreover, Dickens made the scale of this thing bigger and bigger with each new statement. It started off as 'times', then 'age', before we're suddenly into an epoch. This feels too large not to know about!

... 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...

Ok, this is now sounding like an absolute calamity. It's an emergency of life and death proportions. We'd better find out what's going on.

Thus Dickens hooked us into A Tale of Two Cities.

Explore More Classic First Lines

The internet is full of these lists, though the best explanations come from your own mind. What was it about this line that made YOU read on?

Step Three: Decide How to Bait Your Hook

Now you've seen how the greats do it, how will you do it?

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a writer in possession of a good story, must be in want of an opening line. So what did you come up with?

Some authors ramble, piling on the hooks and building up the tension to an unbearable level, like Dickens. Others are more succinct, relying upon a single barb to snag a reader's curious mind. It's practically a throw-away line, but one designed to pique an interest.

The most versatile lines of all inspire the writer as much as they attract readers. If you prompt the questions, then you must be ready to answer them. That, in turn, becomes your novel.

Happy writing!

More of my Articles About Writing Fiction

Original characters can make or break fan fiction. Discover tips and tricks for writing people who complement the canon.
Things can be written in many different ways. The words that you choose will create a mood that subtly works on your reader, like background music in a movie.
When the end of a chapter creates a natural break, how do you convince readers to keep on reading to the end?
The canon personae are already established. Your original characters need your help. Your imagination breathes life into both.
Updated: 07/11/2014, JoHarrington
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What are your favorite first lines?

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JoHarrington on 07/12/2012

You reckon? I've always struggled much more with finishing! I have a tendency to waffle forever, once I get started.

Thank you for your comment.

kaazoom on 07/12/2012

Great advice on writing first lines. Starting is always the most difficult part of writing anything.

JoHarrington on 06/28/2012

You're welcome; and I love that line too. :D

Jasmine on 06/28/2012

My favorite first line is from Tolstoy's novel 'Anna Karenina' - "All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
Great article, Jo! I'll keep these tips in mind when I start working on my novel!

JoHarrington on 06/25/2012

You are a woman after my own heart! I'm forever coming up with lines while I'm out, then scribbling them on bits of paper too!

Sannel on 06/25/2012

It is the opening line, that will make or break the story, I believe. When I write, if that first line doesn't click, there will not be a story. That's why I have learned to carry my noteblock and pen with me wherever I go, because those opening lines usually pop up when I'm not sitting in front of my computer, lol! Great article with great tips.

JoHarrington on 06/15/2012

Wow! He was seriously organised! I have to go sequentially. I'll start with the first line, then keep going until the end. Then just hope that all of the chapter opening lines are good enough. :)

That t-shirt amused me too!

BrendaReeves on 06/15/2012

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife"

I had an English professor who wrote the first line of every chapter before he wrote anything else.

I love that T-shirt in the middle, Jo.

BrendaReeves on 06/15/2012

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife"

I had an English professor who wrote the first line of every chapter before he wrote anything else.

I love that T-shirt in the middle, Jo.

JoHarrington on 06/13/2012

Thank you very much. :)

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