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The power of first lines in fiction

How to open a line of credit with your reader.

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It goes without saying that the first line of your book is your reader’s first impression of that book. Nobody opens up a book to the middle and starts at chapter 19. That wouldn’t serve any practical purpose. And even if they read the jacket copy or the back cover, that’s not a part of the story. It’s promotional copy.

The first line, though: That’s the first time the reader dips their toe into the author’s world.

When the reader opens the book to that first line, it’s as if they’re opening up a line of credit with the author. But the tricky thing about that credit is that it has no substance right from the start. The reader could just give you one line and, if they don’t like it, they can close the book and move on to something else to read.

Hence why writing a first line is so important. In a bookstore with thousands of books around you, that first line – maybe the first two or three – is often the only opportunity you have to hook your reader. If they don’t like your beginning sentence or paragraph, all they have to do is set your book down and pick up another, opening up a line of credit with that new author.

If, however, you get them with the first line, they’ll read the second. And then the third. And before they know it, they’ve arrived at the next chapter, and all the while, you are building that line of credit with the reader. Your margin of forgiveness grows the more they read and dive deeper into your world. Once they sink their teeth into the book and enjoy it enough that they get through several chapters, the reader is willing to give you the benefit of the doubt if something happens that they don’t particularly like, a section reads a bit awkwardly, or a piece of dialogue falls flat. But in the first line? They don’t owe you a thing. So it better be good.

Stephen King likened first lines to an invitation. It is up to that first line to convince the reader to hang around. Which means it is up to you, the writer, to make that first line inviting enough for the reader to accept and stay around for the second sentence. But how do you do that?

Here are six strategies commonly used by top authors.

1. Making the reader curious

One of the most surefire ways to get a reader to hang around is to get them to ask meaningful questions after that first sentence. Questions that they immediately want to know the answers to. That way, they have to keep reading in order to find the answers they’re looking for. But since you only have a sentence or two to prompt those questions, it may sound like a tall order.

Let’s look at some examples, starting with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale:

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“We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.”

Right off the bat, the reader wants to know more. Why sleep in a former gymnasium? Was there some sort of disaster? Was this a normal thing for these characters or had something just occurred to make them sleep there?

Or how about The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern:

“The circus arrives without warning.”

She continues: “No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday
it was not.”

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Why does it sound foreboding, more than exciting? What kind of circus is this? How does it just appear? Where does it appear? Is this a magical circus?

Lastly, Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson:

“But that afternoon there was an orchestra playing.”

This is such a subtle first line, but the intricacies are perfectly placed. Starting with the very first word – “But.” Immediately, the reader’s intrigued: Who starts a book with the word “but?” Yet it introduces the curiosity of the line. Clearly this afternoon is different than other afternoons, and that right there is enough curiosity to drive the reader on to the next line.

All three of these opening lines kick the cogs in the reader’s mind into motion. They start churning up their own ideas, their own thoughts. They start thinking ahead. In The Handmaid’s Tale, you start thinking about the world around this gymnasium – what state it’s in and what that means for the characters inside the gymnasium. In The Night Circus, you start thinking about the aura of this circus and the foreboding feel and what this circus looks like. And, of course, in Red at the Bone, you can’t help but wonder what this orchestra is, and why this afternoon, of all afternoons?

The fact that a reader picked up your book in the first place means that they had some kind of impulse to do so. Maybe they liked the title or the cover design or the jacket copy. But whatever the case, they already opened the door and picked up your invitation, so all you have to do is give them a reason to stay. It’s easier said than done, but getting them to ask questions, no matter what else you hope to establish in those first few lines, is the perfect way to get them to stay around.

2. Introducing tension from the very beginning

As we go through more ways to keep readers reading past the first few lines, keep in mind that these different approaches can and will be combined. Generally, each strategy is going to, ideally, lead the reader to ask questions, to pique their curiosity and entice them to continue reading. But along with those questions come other elements, and one such element is tension.

Let’s look at a few examples. First up, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee:

“History has failed us, but no matter.”

That’s a pretty hefty first line. History has failed us. So without even knowing who the character or speaker is (assuming no prior knowledge of the book), we know that the entire weight of human history has failed this speaker as well as others in the speaker’s world, and thus there is a defiance that follows – but no matter. The fact that all of history has failed them does not trouble the speaker. The juxtaposition of the massive failure combined with the speaker’s casual defiance creates natural tension for the reader.

Another example, from Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid:

“That night, when Mrs. Chamberlain called, Emira could only piece together the words ‘…take Briar somewhere…’ and ‘…pay you double.’”

Without knowing the context of the situation, the tension is already baked in. What better way to start than a choppy phone conversation where the only things you hear are that Briar needs to be taken somewhere – and that clearly it’s a special assignment because Emira is being offered double pay?

As we find out in the next few paragraphs, Emira is Briar’s babysitter, and Mrs. Chamberlain has called her at 10:51 at night to just get Briar out of the house. Cue even more tension.

3. Identifying conflict

Conflict is so often a driving factor in a story. Having a character at odds with another character, at odds with herself, at odds with the world, with society, with a pet or a politician or a vacuum cleaner – whatever the source of opposition, it’s conflict that drives a story. But getting that conflict across in the first couple lines is no easy task. It takes time to build a complex conflict, but if you can introduce that conflict sooner rather than later, well, all the better.

Take, for instance, the first line of Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead:

“The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no.”

You can feel the conflict already. Not only the inherent conflict of running north, along with the namesake of the book, which brought about its own risks, but the conflict in the fact that Cora said no. However, Whitehead also includes the words “first,” meaning that it can be assumed that Cora will say yes in a subsequent time.

4. Utilizing specificity

Specificity is such a great way to make your opening invitation so much more, well, inviting. It’s like sending an invitation that is so beautiful and eye-catching and pleasing that the recipient accepts without even knowing what the event is for.

How about the first line of Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones:

“In the somnolent July afternoon, the unbroken line of brown stone houses down the long Brooklyn street resembled an army massed at attention.”

First of all – gorgeous. Second of all, who can’t picture the exact scene she just painted? She could not have made it any clearer what we, the reader, are looking at. And if that first line is any indication of what’s to come, you’d be right in assuming we’re all in for a treat.

The same goes with the 1929 classic Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett:

“I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte.”

It’s all about the details and the word choice. If Hammett had begun with, “I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a guy in a bar,” it loses so much of its luster. It goes from so great to so what?

Oftentimes, that specificity pairs well with conflict, tension, and questions, but even by itself, the power of detail is remarkable. If you want to see how it can work altogether, however, look no further than James McBride and his most recent novel, Deacon King Kong:

“Deacon Cuffy Lambkin of Five Ends Baptist Church became a walking dead man on a cloudy September afternoon in 1969.”

With just one line, McBride gives us so much, and it starts with the specificity – telling us which church Cuffy Lambkin is the deacon of, giving us the weather report, the month, the year, the time of day. And right there in the middle we have some of the best and most concise tension and conflict you can imagine – “became a walking dead man.”

5. Creating shock and awe

Shock and awe is a bold approach to an opening, but if done correctly, it can rope a reader quickly and easily. By starting the reader with a guffaw, you can help them crave more. A couple of excellent examples – first, The Crow Road by Iain Banks:

“It was the day my grandmother exploded.”

I’m sorry. Grandmother exploded today? Questions, tension, conflict, it’s all there. What do you mean, she exploded? Like dynamite or inflated until she popped? Who is at fault for this? Is anything being done about it?

It’s not every day that a grandmother explodes. You’re giving your reader one of those rare days. You can almost guarantee that curiosity will get the best of most.

Here’s another, this one from The Martian by Andy Weir:

“I’m pretty much fucked.”

Alright then. Now that we know that, we can get into why he is what he is, and, for that matter, can he get unfucked? Because the fact that there’s a whole novel starting off with this one semi-bold pronouncement leads the reader to believe that he will manage to unknot himself from this opening status. But it’s hard to throw the protagonist into any bigger of a hole than by him starting out like this.

6. Presenting the ending as the beginning

This, like shock and awe, can be hit and miss. It has to be done right because, by beginning with a perceived ending, you are essentially giving away the final twist. The last hurrah. You risk eliminating all tension by telling the reader how everything ended up. So it has to be done absolutely correctly, as in One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez:

“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.”

Without knowing anything else about this book, this opening line works wonders. Sure, the end of Colonel Aureliano Buendía is forfeited in the opening line, but what is gained is conflict, tension, and more questions than you can keep track of. For the conflict, well, if he ended up in front of a firing squad, the conflict is guaranteed. With tension: What happens with the firing squad? Is there hope for the Colonel? Is he a bad guy or just in the wrong place at the wrong time? And for the questions, besides the ones that have already come up, what was it about this afternoon with his father? What does it mean to “discover ice?”

It’s a brilliant combination of so many successful tactics, all rolled into one.

The duty of a sentence

No matter what approach you take, bear in mind the saying that every sentence’s job is to get the reader to read the next sentence. If you come with that approach, you will always be evaluating each sentence on its merits to accomplish that end. This comes into play both when you’re writing and when you’re editing. Every line should be an invitation to read the next. What makes the first line so important is that you don’t have a line of credit with the reader yet.

If they’ve made it halfway through the book, maybe you don’t have to labor as much over each and every sentence. If a few don’t work, or a whole paragraph is weaker than the rest, the reader probably isn’t going to drop the book right then and there. You’ve got a credit with them, they’ve made it this far, they’re generally going to trust you and keep going – at least for a while longer.

You don’t have that luxury with the first line. Especially if it’s your debut novel or a reader’s first impression of your work as a whole.

But also remember that you’re not going to please everyone. Some readers will delight in Weir’s bold choice to begin The Martian, but others will see it as cheesy or vulgar or hokey. Some people will love the specificity of the red-haired mucker in Red Harvest, and some people will say “so what?” to this level of specificity. You’re never going to please everyone. All you want is for those first few lines to allow for a substantial line of credit being opened up by your reader. If you can do that, you’ve done all you can.

 

—Josh Sippie is the Director of Contests and Conferences at Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City, where he also teaches various blogging classes. His work has appeared in the Guardian, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Hobart, Cobalt Review, and more. Twitter @sippenator101, more at joshsippie.com.

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