According to leading psychologists, you have only 7 seconds to make a good first impression. It’s barely the blink of an eye—enough for a smile, a firm handshake, and a warm hello.
Other experts suggest a 30 second window might exist—which is better—but still barely enough time to get in a who, what, where, why, or how.
It’s the same for your novel.
In a snippet of time, readers glance at a novel’s cover, scan the book’s summary, and if compelled, open their e-readers to the first page. It’s there, on the opening line, where authors must entice, interest, frighten, entertain, or delight. When readers are hooked emotionally, they’ll be convinced to read on.
Sound daunting? Easier said that done? Don’t let it scare you off. This is a must-have skill you can master with a little research, inspiration, and a willingness to revise.
Here are 10 great ways to grab a reader’s attention, using examples from my own library.
1. Be Surprising – “Novalee Nation, seventeen, six months pregnant, thirty-seven pounds overweight—and superstitious about sevens—shifted uncomfortably in the seat of the old Plymouth and ran her hands down the curve of her belly.” – Where the Heart Is, Billie Letts
Immediately, I can picture this seventeen year-old girl. What is Novalee’s story? What will happen to her? Why is she in a car?
2. Be Shocking – “She had often dreamed of her little sister floating dead beneath the surface of the ice, but tonight, for the first time, she envisioned Hannah clawing to get out.” – Plain Truth, Jodi Picoult
This is such a gripping opening! I immediately wanted to know what happened to Hannah. Is the older sister at fault? Why is the dream different tonight?
3. Be Offbeat – “Dad’s dead,” Wendy says offhandedly, like it’s happened before, like it happens every day. – This is Where I Leave You, Jonathan Tropper
This is a hilarious book that was just made into a movie. The opening is dry and unexpected. Why is Wendy so casual? Who is she talking to? What happened to her father?
4. Be Clear – “Call me Ishmael.” – Moby-Dick, Herman Melville
This is such a commanding, attention-grabbing opening. Why call him Ishmael, as it is not the main character’s first name? Who should call him Ishmael?
5. Promise to reveal something – “When I was seventeen, my life changed forever.” – A Walk to Remember, Nicholas Sparks
We’ve all been seventeen. Most of us have had experiences that have changed our lives forever. This first line is instantly relatable. How did the character’s life change? Was the result wonderful or terrible?
As you can see from the above examples, 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.
When you’ve written a first line that makes you happy, ask yourself (again) if the sentence entices, interests, frightens, entertains, or delights. Will it hook readers and take them through the rest of the story? Can you deliver page after page? Then, run your opening line by a few trusted, but objective readers. Find what they think.