Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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January 13, 2016

Nail That First Line!

 Stephen King reflected on the magnitude of a novel’s first line. “An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story,” he said. “It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”

Preach it, Steve.

I’m not saying a killer first line will get you an agent, get your book sold, or make it a NYT bestseller. But it sure won’t hurt your chances, and I’d make a case that a book that achieves all the above, more often than not, has a great first line.

Why is that? A first line is a promise to the reader, telling them what kind of book this is. What your voice is. Maybe who the main character is. A good first line will pull a reader into a story.

But how do you do that? Here are some suggestions:

Irony - A contradiction or opposite of some kind, something unexpected.

"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

You just know from those 23 words, how Jane really feels about this ‘universal truth’. And you could guess how she’ll handle it in the book, right? Jane has just shown you her voice - snark, Victorian style.  BTW, many will argue to the death that this was the best first line ever written. Let’s not go there – we've a lot more to do.

Catalyst -  The catalyst is what sets your story in motion. A knock at the door, a phone call, please, just don’t start with a dream!

“When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it's never good news.” Anthony Horowitz, Stormbreaker

“It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.” Paul AusterCity of Glass

Comparison - A simile or metaphor.

“Unlike the typical bluesy earthy folksy denim-overalls noble-in-the-face-of-cracker-racism aw shucks Pulitzer-Prize-winning protagonist mojo magic black man, I am not the seventh son of the seventh son of the seventh son.” Paul BeattyThe White Boy Shuffle


“Once upon a time, in a far-off land, I was kidnapped by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin and strengthened their will right through their bones.” Roxane Gay, An Untamed State

“He—for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it—was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.” Virginia Woolf, Orlando

“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we understood the gravity of our situation.” Donna Tartt, The Secret History

Question – But be careful using this; it’s been used SO much that has to be fresh and intriguing. NO clichés!

 “What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask.” Joan Didion, Play It As It Lays

Intriguing Character

“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, Catcher in the Rye

Intriguing PremiseThe line itself may not mean much, but after reading it, you HAVE to read on!

“Don’t look for dignity in public bathrooms.”  Vitor LaValle, Big Machine

 “Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon, with an 8-ball of coke in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat.” Dennis Lehane, Until Gwen

“They shoot the white girl first.” Toni Morrison, Paradise

 “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Here’s mine, from The Sweet Spot:

The grief counselor told the group to be grateful for what they had left. After lots of considering, Charla Rae decided she was grateful for the bull semen.

I screwed up with that line. I wasn’t going for funny. I didn’t even know it was funny until, when I read it at a writer’s retreat, Tessa Dare snorted coffee through her nose and almost wet her pants. See, bull semen is a legitimate industry – just as racehorse semen is. And Charla Rae owns a ranch where they raise and train bucking bulls. The book is emotional, and deals with grief and forgiveness. So, in this case, the first line breaks its promise to readers (unless they know the bull industry). But you know what? When people meet me, they mention that line. They actually remember it. So I can live with that.

I’ve been thinking a lot about first lines, lately. I may not have the perfect first line when I start a book, but if I don’t, it niggles at the back of my mind until I come up with one – even if it’s after I’ve written half the book!

I knew I didn’t have the best first line for my current WIP – it’s a hard-hitting, right to die novel. Here was my first shot at it:

Funny, how knowing the exact time and place of my death makes me exquisitely aware of being alive. 

It’s not bad; it raises a question in the reader’s mind. It’s in the voice of an upper-middle class scientist and professor, which the protagonist is.

But I knew it wasn’t a killer first line. Enter the brilliant Margie Lawson. On a Writer’s Cruise (yes, it was as amazing as that sounds, and they're having another this year! You can check it out here), she worked with me on my first scene. Together, we came up with the first line:

Today, death rides a bicycle. My bicycle.

Oh yeah.

So, do you have a favorite first line for us? Either one of yours, or a memorable one from another author?

Two days ago, Laura released her first novel in the Women's Fiction Genre: Days Made of Glass:Amazon Cover

Shared blood defines a family, but spilled blood can too.

Harlie Cooper raised her sister, Angel, even before their mother died. When their guardian is killed in a fire, rather than be separated by Social Services, they run. Life in off the grid in L.A. isn’t easy, but worse, there’s something wrong with Angel.

Harlie walks in to find their apartment scattered with shattered and glass and Angel, a bloody rag doll in a corner. The doctor orders institutionalization in a state facility. Harlie’s not leaving her sister in that human warehouse. But something better takes money. Lots of it.

When a rep from the Pro Bull Riding Circuit suggests she train as a bullfighter, rescuing downed cowboys from their rampaging charges, she can’t let the fact that she’d be the first woman to attempt this stop her. Angel is depending on her.

It’s not just the danger and taking on a man’s career that challenges Harlie. She must learn to trust—her partner and herself, and learn to let go of what’s not hers to save.

A story of family and friendship, trust and truth.

“A powerful and poignant story about sisters, trust, and belonging, DAYS MADE OF GLASS will have you cheering for Harlie Cooper as she struggles to find her place in the all-male world of bullfighting, provide for her broken sister, and accept that she can’t succeed in either alone. I devoured this book!”

Barbara Claypole White, bestselling author of THE PERFECT SON

53 comments on “Nail That First Line!”

  1. Lovely post!
    These are my favourites:
    'Last night I went to Manderlay again'. You just know you're going to read a romantic and melancolic story with lots of drama!
    'There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.' Another story with lots of struggle and drama.
    I also like looking at last lines...

  2. Laura, this is a great post. I love the way you've broken out the various tips, and the examples you've selected are awesome. Thanks. And yes, I agree with Luccia...last lines are your last chance to leave the reader with a satisfying memory.

  3. I feel a special thrill when I either read (or write) a great first line. Because I write shorter works, I know I have even less time than a novelist to draw readers in and keep them there. I was particularly proud of this first line from my latest book:

    "You probably don't know this, but Santa is nothing more than a glorified chauffeur."

    Thanks for the great article!

  4. Hi Laura,

    Great blog post. You've inspired me to go back to my current WIP and send my first line to Margie to fix. 🙂 I do love your bull semen line. It's one I wish I had written. Congrats on your latest book.

  5. This post is a challenge for me. I've got a couple WIP's and I'm going to go back and spend some time with those first lines. I always struggle to start and I've discovered that sometimes the first line is buried somewhere in that first chapter, as if I needed a running start to find it.

  6. Great post. I think we all struggle with first lines, first paragraphs and, as jamiebeck said, I think last lines are important too. I loved my last line in my debut and if I can share it here, "It's times like this when Cora's words come back to me: "'Hon, life has a way of surprising the dickens out of you.'" Yes. Yes it does."

    I also love how you pointed out the promise of first lines and used your bull semen line as an example. Thanks for reminding us that your promise to your reader is always something to keep in mind when crafting those first and last lines. You want to entice in the beginning, but not go to far, and leave them satisfied in the end, but yet wanting more. Thanks, Laura!

    1. I still worry about that line, Densie - it IS memorable, but it's taken by the reader as SO opposite of the tone of the book, I'm surprised no one has nailed me on it!

      I love your last line!

  7. Well you know how I feel about first lines, and last. I didn't think you could make your first line in your WIP any better, that's amazing. Always in awe.

  8. I am a fool for first lines. When I start reading a book and the first line is flat (even if I go on to love the book) I wonder why the author didn't try harder right off the bat. I believe a first line, first paragraph, first page, sets the tone, makes a promise. Even if that promise is broken--it's the possibility of it that draws in the reader. I have learned (and internalized) that the first line doesn't have to wallop the reader, it just has to welcome. Thank you for another post! 🙂

    1. You know, Amy, I've wondered the same thing...did the author really think that was a great first line? Or did they just not want to put the effort into it?

      Welcome - YES! Well said!

    1. Have fun digging in, Chris. Sometimes it's easier if you walk away, and come back to it later - like a math problem you can't solve, and suddenly, the answer is there!

  9. I'm a big fan of first lines. Here are some of mine. 🙂
    From Mr. Crotchety: "Smudge marks on the glass make me twitchy."
    From Five Minutes Late: "For the last time, I'm not possessed by demons."
    From Kissing Frogs: "Poor bastard. Sara Larson's new neighbor had no idea he was going to be castrated today."

  10. Loved this post! Thanks Laura.
    Here are two of my own first lines.
    MG novel:
    "I opened my mouth wide, pulled in my chin and let out a loud long belch, one of my best ever."
    MG historical fiction:
    "I dashed to the washroom, a place with no privacy at all."

  11. Preach it, Laura. So with you on this.

    I never (rarely?) expect my first line to stand through the draft and so I find myself going back after all the other decisions have been made and the writing done, to nail that first hit to offer the reader. In fact I spent yesterday and several other days this week on my WIP's first line, part of the job of readying it for queries.

    I think you and Margie found a great first line for yours. Have to say when I read your first go at it that I would have cut it to this. "Charla Rae decided she was grateful for the bull semen." I'd read on from that. Sometimes we try to say too much in that first sentence, forgetting how even a small hook catches a big fish.

    I always look at an author's first line. So much is revealed. And. . . it is amazing how many great books DON'T have fabulous first lines. Like anything else in life, the priceless ones are that way because they are not common.

    1. Boy, isn't that the truth, Tom? If I'dve been TRYING for funny, I'd have written the line you did above - but I was trying to make a promise to the reader - If you look at my whole line, it tells you: She's been to grief counseling - someone died. She's at the end of her rope, & show she's a country girl - after lots of considering.

      Share one of yours!

  12. Timely post, Laura! I'm working on my Orange Rose Contest entry and my first few lines aren't passing muster with my critique group. Your post has given me some great ideas as I revise. Can't wait to read your latest book! It came in the mail a few days before release date. A nice surprise.

  13. You have been such a great student of the craft, Laura. Now, you're a great teacher as well! I'm so excited for your new "hybrid" career!

  14. Getting ready to polish and this is great timing. Excellent advice. Here's one of my personal favs. "Three women step off of a plane. It sounded like the start of a joke." From the book Barefoot, by Elin Hilderbrand. Clever. Now you want to find out who these three women are. Oh, and congrats on your new release Laura! 🙂

  15. Love that bicycle line! Can't wait to read your new release.

    And I had a total crap first line when I went on that cruise. By the end of the week, my "meh" opening for my current novel in progress had become: "Dares should be reserved for foolish stunt men, extreme sports addicts, hammered teenagers. Not a theater junkie with bone-melting stage fright."

  16. Love this post: Here are a few of mine. Kidlit of course!
    We Elves get a bad rap for being all kinds of Grumpy….But Grumpy Elves We Are NOT!
    Piper couldn’t understand why everyone ooooh and aahhhh over her new baby sister.

    These are not first liners, but ones I get a ton of comments on. "Papa was a bitter beast, and only ambition was to burn a hole in the ground as he traveled lightning speed to Hell."
    "My Bra is trying to kill me."
    Thanks for always affirming the joy of a writing community. ~Blessings

  17. Laura I love your blogs and your facebook posts! Here's my first line to contribute: Of all her fantasies for Scott’s demise, her first choice was for him to be killed in the line of duty.
    Now I'm going back to change the first line of my WF WIP! Thanks, Gerri

  18. This is brilliant. I've heard of the idea of a 'brilliant opening line', but hadn't really considered the factors behind that. Nor had I considered the opening line of a book as a kind of promise. But I suppose, when you look at it – the opening line is a form of hook, and your ideas for engaging first lines having given me great food for thought. Thank you!

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