There’s no one perfect formula for writing fantastic first lines. They can be short or long, descriptive or straightforward. The choice, ultimately, is up to you.
For more ideas, peruse your favorite books and study the first lines that really grab your attention. Figure out why. How do those first lines make you feel? What questions come to mind?
Here are examples of five great ways to open your novel:
1. Be Suspenseful – “She heard a knocking, and then a dog barking.” – The Pilot’s Wife, Anita Shreve
I can almost feel the pinpricks running up my spine. Why is someone knocking? The person at the door must be a stranger if the dog is barking. Oh no!
2. Offer A Unique Voice – “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
It’s a classic example, and one you may have seen before, but it’s worth revisiting. Readers immediately get a sense of Holden Caulfield’s personality. Caulfield is caustic and bitter, but his casual speaking style, voice, and offhand manner draw readers in.
3. Be Funny – “OK. Don’t panic. Don’t panic.” – Shopaholic to the Stars, Sophie Kinsella
Kinsella opens all of her Shopaholic books this way. Of course, heroine Becky Brandon (née Bloomwood) is always in a panic, and for good reason! Kinsella always makes me laugh and continues Becky’s hilarious antics page after page.
4. Be Vivid – “Sometimes, in that split second when Ray Levine snapped a picture and lost the world in the strobe from his flashbulb, he saw the blood.” – Stay Close, Harlan Coben
Just from those few words, I’m able to picture the scene in detail. Coben does a great job with first lines, chapter endings, and description in general.
5. Use Emotion – “He’d stopped trying to bring her back.” – Eleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell
Oh my goodness. I was gripped from the first line. Sure, it’s a YA novel about first love, but Rowell’s novel is anything but trite.
A few things to keep in mind:
A fantastic first line isn’t so fantastic if you lead off with something funny, but the rest of your book is serious. If you ask a question in your opening line, somewhere within the novel, you must answer it. Think of it as fulfilling a promise—your duty as an author!
Because first lines are so crucial, plan on putting in some effort to get it right. That might mean rewriting your first sentence a dozen times. It might also mean throwing it out entirely and using your second or third line.
Do not, by any means, spend weeks staring at a blank screen trying to conjure up the perfect first line. Writers need to be writing, after all.
So, get something down, finish that first chapter, and push on. An epiphany may strike in the fifth or fifteenth chapter. It may take until the end of the novel to come up with a first line that’s just right.