Writing great first lines

Do first lines matter? Are they so important that we need to work hard and polish them till they gleam?

Great first lines will draw the reader in, intrigue them and make them want to know more. So yes, of course they’re important.

Take a look at the first line of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

Immediately, the reader asks themselves, what on earth is a hobbit? And they want to know more, they want their question/s to be answered and so they read on.

Your goal as a writer is to make the reader, well, read on. First lines make them read on. First lines do matter. Working hard on your first line is worth it. It should capture the reader’s attention in just a few words and those few words can keep the reader hooked for the rest of the story. Create a first line that makes the reader want to know more.

Another example is the first line from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

It was a pleasure to burn.”

The sentence just raises questions! Why is it a pleasure? Who or what is burning? What happens next?            

The main character in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 burns books, so the sentence is part of the central conflict in the story. It’s part of the story and it makes sense. You can’t just put in a line that has nothing whatsoever to do with your book.

Readers would get really irritated if my first line was:

It was a pleasure to burn.

And then the rest of the story has nothing to do with fire or burning or anything related to that line.

Remember: You want to give the reader an invitation they can’t resist.

So now you know that first lines are important. Here are some tips for writing your own first lines:

  • Startle the reader. Write a first line so confusing, so strange, that they’ll want to read on
  • Start with action! If you’re writing a thriller, horror, adventure or crime and mystery novel then you might want to start with action, like someone dying or drowning
  • If you want the reader to read on, start with something new. Something they’ve not read before. Readers are tired of the opening lines being all about a character opening their eyes or going to school
  • Try starting with a death scene, or something unusual, like the line: “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink” from I capture the castle by Dodie Smith
  • Set the first lines in an interesting setting – like a dungeon. The reader would want to know how the character ended up in a dungeon and why

Whatever great line you come up with, make sure…

  • It’s relevant to the story
  • It feels right – if you’re writing a beautiful love-story fairy-tale, you can’t just drop a car chase in it!
  • You introduce the mood. If you’re writing a crime novel, it needs to be action-packed and fast-paced
  • You avoid introducing many characters at once. The last thing you want to do is confuse the reader
  • You introduce main characters – you need to do this early on! We’ll cover more on main characters in a bit
  • You avoid info-dumping. When I sent my first query letter to a literary agency with my first three chapters attached, they declined because although the main character’s backstory and details about the setting is important, it took the readers away from the actual story
  • You don’t start describing the main characters. Again, this is all important, but it could easily be put in later on, and it takes the readers away from the story

Let me know how you found this post below! Thank you for reading and stay safe,

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