How to Write the First Line in Fiction
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.
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.