The Best First Line of Your Novel

by Kellie McGann | 62 comments

Happy Day Three of NaNoWriMo 2015! How's that word count so far? I'm allowed to ask that, because this year I'm actually participating. I've written a book in four months before, but writing a book in one month? Insanity, but here is what I've learned and struggled with so far.

The Best First Line of Your Novel

With each book I've written, the hardest part was the beginning. Not only the beginning but specifically the first line. The blank page and blinking cursor is one of the most intimidating things for me as a writer. What's in a first line? Is it supposed to be meaningful? Insightful? A play on words?

Examples of Great First Lines in Novels

Determined to solve my problem of writing weak and confusing beginnings, I did some research. I checked out a list of the top 100 first lines from famous novels and looked for common themes. Here's what I learned:

Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina by Tolstoy is a novel about a family and their messes: the secrets, the dreams, and the affairs. Here is the first line from the book:

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. —Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877)

A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens is a story about London, Paris, love, and sacrifice. Here's the first line from A Tale of Two Cities:

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 (1859)

The Catcher in the Rye

The Catcher in the Rye is about a teenage boy wandering The Big Apple, calling people phony, and questioning innocence.

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, The Catcher in the Rye (1951)

What Makes a Great First Line in a Novel?

What makes these such great first lines in novels?

They all connect deeply to the problem.

The problem is the most important aspect to your book. It's the reason the book needs to be written, because there is a problem that needs to be solved. By alluding to your problem in the first sentence, your reader is able to decide if the problem in your book is one they want to solve with you.

The Problem

Every one of the first lines in the examples above relates directly to the problem in the book. Anna Karenina alludes directly to the family drama that encompasses most of the book. A Tale of Two Cities' first line contrasts the two cities and hints at the problems within the cities. The first sentence in The Catcher in the Rye immediately connects to the conflict that runs through the entire book: Holden's discontent and apathy towards the future.

All books are about solving problems, and the deeper the author connects to the problem in the first sentence, the more likely the reader will continue reading.

Two Questions to Check if Your First Line Is Good Enough

When your reader picks up your book and reads the first sentence, they want to know two things:

1. What is your book about?

The first sentence is often a great place to introduce your premise or core idea. Look back at the examples above. The first sentence relates back to the plot every time. Whether in a direct way like Catcher in the Rye or in a more indirect/mysterious way like A Tale of Two Cities. Try hinting at your core idea in your first sentence.

2. Is it worth reading?

Does the first sentence prove to your readers that your book is worth reading? Is the problem worth solving? You believe that your book is worth reading, and so do I, but you need to be able to convey that within the first sentence of your book so that your readers believe it's worth reading too.

Will your first sentence answer those questions? Let us know in the comments.

PRACTICE

Write the first line of your novel. If you already have a first line, ask yourself the questions at the end of the post and see if your first line answers them.

Share your first line in the comments, and leave some feedback for your fellow writers.

How to Write Like Louise PennyWant to write like Louise Penny? Join our new class and learn how. Learn more and sign up here.

Join Class

Next LIVE lesson is coming up soon!

Kellie McGann is the founder of Write a Better Book. She partners with leaders to help tell their stories in book form.

On the weekends, she writes poetry and prose.

She contributes to The Write Practice every other Wednesday.

62 Comments

  1. Kairu

    Most people would have stopped walking before they reached the ledge, even more would have stopped before they reached the end of the flagpole. But Ronan was NOT “most people”, in fact, calling him a ‘person’ would have been a great mistake.

    Reply
    • Beck Gambill

      That’s a great first line! I want to know what he is now.

    • Kairu

      Thanks very much 😀 I’m putting the novel onto Wattpad soon 😀

    • Davidh Digman

      I am more than a little curious myself.

    • Kellie McGann

      Kairu,
      This is really great. Definitely pulled me in immediately!

    • Kairu

      I’ll send you a link to the story when it’s on Wattpad? :/

    • Davidh Digman

      I have to ask: what is Wattpad?

      I would love to read it when finished.

    • Kairu

      Not to sound like an advertisement, but its a site where you can write books online 😀 It’s like a huge site with millions of books, all of them different genres all done by online, undiscovered writers 😀 I would highly recommend using the techniques and information tutorials here to write a book on Wattpad 😀 If you want somewhere to write a book of your own, with feedback and full copyrights to yourself (strict no plagiarism rules on wattpad) then I would SERIOUSLY recommend wattpad 😀

    • Davidh Digman

      Thank you!
      There is no need to apologise for any fear you sound like you are advertising. I did ask!
      I will check out Wattpad, and scrape a potato peeler over my sclera looking for your piece!

    • sherpeace

      Many people share their writing on Wattpad including two people I know. One of them keeps getting upset with me because I won’t share my writing there. BUT you can’t sell your writing if you are giving it away. Amazon has strict rules about it.
      But, sounding like an advertisement, I will say there is some amazing writing there! 😉 <3

    • Davidh Digman

      Having checked out Wattpad, I have decided to pass on it.

      The idea of giving my work away has no real appeal. I am concerned about the direction the writing craft is taking because if it is to remain a profession, then we do need to be paid for our work. Professionalism is more than an attitude, it is also a statement as to whether one is paid or not.

      And, as you so rightfully say, sherpeace, you cannot sell your writing if you give it away.

      Additionally, I am more than concerned about how cosy Wattpad is with Google. Privacy theft (aka: data harvesting) is a toxic thing and so I tend to minimise my exposure to Google. I use Linux with some added security measures in place instead of any of the alternatives. I never use Google’s search engine, preferring instead DuckDuckGo. Disqus is now the only social media I do, and I am not terribly comfortable with that.

      This means I will not be able to read anything on Wattpad as my privacy concerns and principles mean I am not willing to register with them.

      Rant mode disengaged now.

    • Kellie McGann

      Kairu,
      This is really great! I’m super curious where he’s going and what he is!
      Love it! Great job!

    • Kairu

      Thank You 😀

    • Kiki Stamatiou

      A very compelling begining. I was immediately drawn into the world of the narrator. You’ve done an outstanding job of establishing an emotional connection with your readers. I definitely felt the powerful emotions within this piece down to the very core of my being. I was impacted.

    • Kairu

      Wow haha 😀 Thanks very much! I’m happy my words made such an impact 😀

  2. Beck Gambill

    Dixie Lee’s eyes crackled, revealing a personality as combustible as her Ford pickup’s carburetor. (Well, at least as combustible as it had been. At the moment she was standing on the side of a dusty Mississippi road, head shoved under the hood of her royal blue 1976 pride and joy. The only combustion happening was inside her.)

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      Ahh I love the imagery and setting. This is a great description!

    • Beck Gambill

      Thanks Kellie! I’m all about imagery!

  3. Melissa Evans

    “I can see you there,” Tobias muttered to the cloaked figure currently invading his dream.

    Reply
    • Ryan

      Really suspenseful and eerie first line, Melissa! Definitely an intriguing introduction.

    • Kellie McGann

      Melissa, this is very suspenseful. For sure makes me want to keep reading!
      Great job!

    • Davidh Digman

      Okay… so where’s the rest? When do I get to find out who or what this cloaked figure is?

    • Kiki Stamatiou

      You have a great opening for a novel. It’s intriguing. Great writing here.

  4. Guyanne Lillie

    Lucy’s hands trembled, working feverishly to pry a loose board from the attic floor where light radiated between the rotting planks.

    Reply
    • Ryan

      Wonderful first line, Guyanne! Pulls me right in and makes me want to keep reading.

    • Guyanne Lillie

      Thank you for the feed back. I need it… We all need feed back. Again, thanks!

    • Kellie McGann

      Guyanne! Love this. Where is she going? Was she trapped?
      So many thoughts and questions.
      Great job!!

    • Guyanne Lillie

      Thanks, It’s the first line in my novel The Portal. I’ve changed it a hundred times to get the right feel.

    • Davidh Digman

      It makes me wonder why she is in the attic in the first place, and why she needs to pry a loose board apart.

      Lovely.

    • Kiki Stamatiou

      I love the suspense within this piece. It’s intriguing. As a reader, I was curious about how the character got up there in the attic. All great writers create curiosity within the reader’s minds to make them want to read more of the story. The start is wonderful. If this were a completed published book, I wouldn’t be able to put it down, and would end up reading it in its entirety all in one setting. Well Done.

  5. Davidh Digman

    Clio Petra Bose curled her paper-white flesh into the shifting gravity field. Folding her origami self onto the wall, thence onto the ceiling, she opened her eyes. She saw the light of her stateroom twirling around her.
    A pendant, a blue star sapphire, whispered upon its gold chain as it danced with her,
    keeping perfect step. It was a blue gem world orbiting her white haze sun. Its heaviness pulled at her neck, staying with her.
    Always.

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      Davidh, this is very interesting! Made me curious and interested!
      Great job!

    • Davidh Digman

      Thank you. That is the mission of an opener.

      My favourite opener comes from John W Campbell’s Who Goes There? which was the basis for the ‘The Thing’ films. I adore the way Campbell employs the little-used sense of smell to paint a picture of animal predation, with we perhaps being the quarry:

      The place stank. A queer, mingled stench that only the ice-buried cabins of an Antarctic camp know, compounded of reeking human sweat, and the heavy, fish-oil stench of melted seal blubber. An overtone of liniment combated the musty smell of sweat-and-snow-drenched furs. The acrid odor of burnt cooking fat, and the animal, not-unpleasant smell of dogs, diluted by time, hung in the air.

      Lingering odors of machine oil contrasted sharply with the taint of harness dressing and leather. Yet, somehow, through all the reek of human beings and their associates — dogs, machines, and cooking — came another taint. It was a queer, neck-ruffling thing, a faintest suggestion of an odor alien among the smells of industry and life.

    • Kiki Stamatiou

      Great start so far. Looks like a beginning for a blockbuster movie. Not only should you consider making this into a series of books, but also writing some movie scripts to coincide with the books, and then submitting them out. I’d like to see this story on the big screen some day. Beautiful piece of writing so far. As a reader, I was curious. The writing is so good, you make your readers want to know more.

    • Davidh Digman

      Wow. This is far and away the loveliest compliment I have ever received.

      This opener is from Orange Sun, the first novel in a planned series of three. I will follow it with Sanguine Sun then Ashen Sun.

      I have worked out my future history in sufficient detail to create many stories in my Universe, but they are going to need to be prequels or about a different set of characters. Ashen Sun ends a few moments after our Universe dies.

      I am very visual in my thinking, and am actually trying to craft this to be easily adaptable to the screen. So I hope you can understand that your compliment seems more than merely complimentary.

      You have given me quite a smile!

    • Kiki Stamatiou

      Are any of your books published, and are they available for purchase online?

    • Davidh Digman

      None of my books, nor any fiction at all, have been published. I do have a couple of hundred non-fiction pieces floating out there in print, in local publications here in Australia.

  6. Kiki Stamatiou

    I was curious about the wind and the direction it would flow. Life is like the wind, carrying with it dust blown sands of the desert, or perhaps life is about man leaving his tears washed up on a lonely shore. Well today I delved into the waters of my mind and where my wind would carry me when delving into the realms of dreams. I walk through the plattitudes of my maze, exiting one entryway and entering another. It was nothing new for me to get carried up to the sky by the wind where I’d be flying through the air like Superman, but in this time was different.

    As I ascended into the clouds, I found the stairway to heaven. Landing on the first step, I stomped on it lightly to be sure of how solid it really was. I climbed the stairs stretching up to the golden light. I walked through this entry way where all the walls were lined with gold. Standing before me was a man with his back turned towards me,

    Before I could annoucne myself, he said, “I know you’re there. I have no need to see. Therefore, I remain with my back turned to you. For it has been written through the ages how time is man’s keeper when the chimes strike, and the birds of the falcon is released from the soul of the wood. Yet, the truth remains unbroken. For you are none other than my remembrance of the light shining throughout the Universe. The light is composed of many bodies. There are worlds within worlds just as there are physical bodies within physical bodies. Some are visible, while others are invisible. We are visible in the realm of the invisible.”

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      I really love that first sentence in particular! This whole piece is a great start! Is this a book you’re working on?

    • Kiki Stamatiou

      Kellie McGann, thank you so much for your kind words. After completing the writing exercise above yesterday, I’ve been considering making it into a book. I also want to thank you for the encouragement. I’m glad you liked my piece.

    • Davidh Digman

      Poetic indeed.

      Your first sentence in particular gelled, but also the device of wind and its connection to the seeming randomness of life.

      Please do develop this further.

    • Kiki Stamatiou

      Thank you, Davidh Digam for your kind words and encouragement. I definitely will develop the story further. I’m considering making it into a novel.

  7. Gary G Little

    “Sometimes, Tom, you just should’a stood in bed,” his younger brother used to say to him when they were kids growing up in the Dakota’s. “Yeah, Bobby,” Tom agreed, muttering to himself, “but it tain’t what you want that makes you fat, it’s what you get.”

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      Gary, I’m very intrigued! I’m not completely sure what the problem is, but this sentence made me interested to find out! Great job!

  8. TBL

    Even the air in the room seemed different with the Colonel gone.

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      This is really intriguing. So much mystery. I’d keep reading! 🙂

    • Kiki Stamatiou

      This opening makes me curious. You have a good start of a great novel.

  9. sherpeace

    As Shelly steps out of the plane into the Salvadoran sun, the heat slaps her in the face and almost takes her breath away.
    Sherrie Miranda’s historically based, coming of age, Adventure novel “Secrets & Lies in El Salvador” is about an American girl in war-torn El Salvador:
    http://tinyurl.com/klxbt4y
    Her husband made a video for her novel. He wrote the song too:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P11Ch5chkAc

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      Sherpeace, that sounds super interesting. I love coming of age stories. Maybe you can hint at her age even in the first sentence?

      Great job!

    • sherpeace

      Whoa, I am just seeing this now. The novel was published almost one year ago & I don’t think you find out her age until half-way through the book!

  10. Katherine Rebekah

    Well this made me rethink my entire opening line, which is a good thing. I found a way to tie this into my story later.

    There are different types of monsters in the world, the kind that embrace their fate and revel in evil, the kind who do not know what they are and what they do, and the kind who know, who have known all their lives, but fight tooth and nail against it. They lie to themselves and put on angel’s wings to hide the fact that they are demons, but they can not hide from their true selves forever.

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      Katherine, this is a really intriguing first line. I love the whole first paragraph. You might be able to even shorten it and have “There are different types of monsters in the world” be the first line on its own. I think it’s a strong enough on its own! I love those supporting details though.
      Great great job!

    • Katherine Rebekah

      Thanks! I will probably do that, the comma does weaken it a little.

  11. Hakumen19

    Whether it be through religion, theory or just plain, badly misplaced assumption, we all believe that there isn’t such thing as True Good or True Evil, that any and all people on this damned planet can’t be completely selfless nor completely selfish. I know for a fact, this is the biggest damned lie on the face of the planet. It wasn’t a religious experience, it was too real to be a theory and it sure as hell wasn’t an assumption! I’ve met True Evil and it met me…

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      Hakumen19, this sounds like a great and certainly intriguing story. I think that first sentence is powerful and connects to the reader well, but could be made even stronger without all the commas.
      I think rearranging that first sentence could make it a little more clear, with a stronger voice.
      Sounds like a great story.

  12. Caroline

    I have been reading SO many articles about first chapters, first sentences, etc. lately, and I can say without doubt that this is the best. Thank you!!

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      Caroline,
      Wow thank you! I’m glad you liked the article. Hope your first line is coming along nicely! 🙂

  13. Pedro Hernandez

    Sometimes choice doesn’t matter. Sometimes when fate has been woven, fate cannot be unwoven, it cannot be altered. Sometimes, we are forced into a path we do not want to take.

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      Pedro,
      This is great! I found myself saying, “No! What?!” I hate being forced to do things, so this connected with me immediately.
      Great job!

  14. Dan de Angeli

    “Go ahead Danny. Try knocking again,” says my little brother Jack

    “They’re just going to get mad,” I say.

    “It’s okay,” Jack says. “Remember, they said ‘If we were good.’”

    We have been good. Oh so good. So why won’t they open the door?

    “They” are my two older brothers, Mike and Pete. Like Jack and I, they have their own bedroom. Like us, they are close in age and spend a lot of time together. Unlike us, they are cool.

    Reply
  15. Anna

    I woke up to a bright light on a false ceiling above me. Beautiful,I thought. It was the only word I could pry out of my head.My mind was a complete blur, my past in a undeciphered havoc. I tried with more vigour to bring out a memory, but I failed to do so. I must have slept too well, I thought, shrugging off this peculiarity.I rose from the white bed and moved to a door nearby.Only then did I notice a full-length mirror there.It was standing all by itself,waiting for company. I went closer to it, my heart thumping slowly.

    Reply
  16. Sarah P

    It was a truth widely acknowledged that one day Clarisse De Angelo was going to get herself killed.

    Reply

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Three Ways to Write Good Beginnings - […] This is the hook that needs to grab your reader right away. With the right first line, you’ll have…

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Say Yes to Practice

Join over 450,000 readers who are saying YES to practice. You’ll also get a free copy of our eBook 14 Prompts:

Popular Resources

Books By Our Writers

Box of Shards
- K.M. Hotzel
Headspace
- J. D. Edwin
Vestige Rise of the Pureblood
- Antonio Roberts
54
Share to...