Writers in the Storm

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June 13, 2022

Writing a Compelling First Line

by Ellen Buikema

Character, voice, conflict, and some of the setting is a lot to get in upfront, but this is where to hook your readers with a compelling first line.

Recently, I attended a webinar where writers submitted their first lines for review by an editor. The editor was straightforward and no-nonsense. She gave several suggestions to help make the first lines better.

I reviewed the first lines I submitted after the webinar ended, keeping in mind all that was said. The more recent manuscript had a reasonably good first line. But the other one, written a few years ago and set aside...good grief. That first line is a sad wispy creature in need of beefing up.

Below are some of the suggestions I gleaned, all of which I plan to use.

3 Must-Have First Line Elements

Character

Great first lines weave an interesting character. An important rule of writing is to bring out your character and the situation right away. If your main characters are intriguing, the readers will keep turning those pages to find out what they do next.

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez

This next first line gives a lot of information. The narrator is likely an angsty teenager who is well read and somewhat cynical.  

“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.”

The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger

Voice

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen” –1984 George Orwell

George Orwell’s 1984, written in 1949, presents a dystopian setting with the use of clocks “striking thirteen,” showing the readers that the story happens in a world with different rules.

Think about the first line as a close up to the action. If you’re stuck for a first line, fast forward five minutes into the story and write the first sentence from that perspective. This first line feels like it’s starting smack in the middle of the action.

“There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.” — The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman

Tone

The tone of the first line gives the reader a sense of genre and the age group for which the book is meant. “The green cigarette smoke thwacked Ashley’s brain through the bandages of a broken nose.” A first line that mentions green cigarette smoke fits fantasy, perhaps science fiction, and hints at YA or older readers.

A short first line can be as good as a lengthy one. It may not include a lot of detail, but can pack a mighty punch. Here, the main character is already in a hot mess. “I’m pretty much fucked.”

The Martian, Andy Weir

Further Reading: here are some great opening lines in literature.

Other suggestions from the editor

  • Don’t have too many things happening in the sentence.
  • Boring is bad.
    • Forget the mundane and make the first line interesting.
    • Instead of focusing on looking inside a refrigerator concentrate on what’s in it and why.
  • Steer clear of passive construction and purple prose—overwritten.
  • Be personal, specific.
  • Get rid of parenthetical phrases.
  • Include a character to connect with the reader otherwise it’s hard to get invested in the story.
  • Beware of redundancies such as back-to-back prepositional phrases.
    • If it’s 4 AM and early morning, we already know that 4 AM is early.
    • Don’t wake up in the first line. Waking up isn’t interesting.
  • Too many facial expressions as these are awkward.
  • Avoid cliches and exclamation points.
  • Don’t write a first line that gives the reader an excuse to put down your book such as, “If you are proper, strait-laced person, stop reading this book.” Even if you’re writing this line to be funny, it may not come off that way.

Instead of writing your opening line with reams of gorgeous sentences about the landscape and the character’s backstory, dig into a scene that starts with a bang, beginning with a compelling first line.

What are your favorite first lines? How do you like to start your stories? Please share your insights with us -- including your first line if you wish -- below in the comments!

* * * * * *

About Ellen

Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents and a series of chapter books for children with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Works In Progress are The Hobo Code, YA historical fiction and Crystal Memories, YA paranormal fantasy.

Find her at https://ellenbuikema.com or on Amazon.

Top Image by Mystic Art Design from Pixabay

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32 comments on “Writing a Compelling First Line”

      1. Early on, I didn't realize how much these first lines impact the readers' interest. I don't worry about them when I get the story going, but it's one of the first edits I get to on the first pass.

  1. I adore first lines. Thank for sharing the tips. A few favorites…

    “It was a pleasure to burn.” ~Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

    “I was born twice.” Rebekah Crane, The Upside of Falling Down

    "The child was pure evil, no doubt about it." ~J.T. Hardy, Blood Ties

    "My sister has been dead for nearly fifteen Years when I see her on the TV news." ~Barbara O’Neal, When We Were Mermaids

    I've written many, all of them, thus far, not yet published, though I'm ever closer. For fun, I'll share one:

    "Talma Loyal tapped a distracting rhythm to purge thoughts determined to summon old screams." Christina Anne Hawthorne, Case of the Deadly Stroll

      1. I decided to be brave and see what others think of this opening line for my not yet published contemporary romance.
        Georgia stared at her kitchen calendar, arms cinched across her stomach, guilt trapped in her chest.

          1. Thank you. I should probably write women's fiction next time, but this novella was plotted as a romance. So many books to write . . .

  2. One of my favorites is from Charlotte's Web. ""Where's Papa going with that ax?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

  3. “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.”

    ― Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

    denise

  4. My favorite line from one of my books: "It was a damn fine day to die." Hero is about to engage in a duel.

    1. Interesting, Julia! You have me wondering what your protagonist saw, heard, experienced to feel the need to run.

      1. Just the realization that once he gets on that international flight to Central Asia, there will be no way back to the only life he's ever known, even if his father and Central Asia both turn out to be a disastrous destination.

  5. There's so many, but here's one from a kid's book that was close at hand.
    'Ramona Quimby hoped her parents would forget to give her a little talking-to.' By Beverely Cleary in Ramona Quimby, Age 8

    It immediately makes me think, "Uh-oh. What did Ramona do now?" Which gets me to keep reading to find out!

  6. It's a paragraph, not a line, but my favorite opening of all time is Shirley Jackson's "We Have Always Lived in the Castle":

    My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

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