The Secret to Writing a Great First Line
The first line is the most examined line in your story. Many readers will use this small collection of words to judge your entire book. Make sure your opening line is selling your story.
According to Jeff Gerke, an opening line must be “simple, engaging, and appropriate for the tone of the book.” (The First 50 Pages, p. 193)
Creating a simple opening line
Opening lines need to have one idea. Too often writers want to pack too much information into an opening line. As a result, the opening line answers whatever question it poses and leaves the reader no compelling reason to read further. Or it becomes too convoluted and confusing for the reader to follow. Deliver information in manageable bites. No one wants to eat the entire steak at once. No matter how delicious it is.
The scent of fresh baked cookies hits my nose as I entered my best friend Julie’s bakery, The Cookie Brigade, making my stomach growl, while my brain simultaneously reminded me that I only have three more weeks to fit into my size 6 wedding dress.
The scent of fresh baked cookies filled me with an overwhelming sense of doom.
Notice how the simple line is much easier to swallow. It also sets up a question, inviting the reader to learn more.
Creating an engaging first line
An engaging first line is one that captures the reader’s interest. Sounds simple, but this is the part that trips most writers because what captures a reader’s interest is subjective. It’s also difficult because the writer already knows where the scene is going so many writers stuggle to get enough distance from the subject to see if the first line is truly engaging.
Gerke further explains that effective opening lines fall into four categories: Striking, profound, funny, mysterious. (p. 197)
Striking: Everyone has a demon; mine is sitting in a beat-up leather recliner smoking menthols.
Profound: The worst evil was always the one hiding behind respectability.
Funny: There are two things that work best when they’re invisible: God and underwear.
Mysterious: I woke up on the other side, knowing there was no way home.
Matching the tone
The first line is the introduction to your book. It must match the overall tone of the story. No matter how snappy your opening line is, if it doesn’t match the rest of the book it doesn’t work. Imagine beginning your gothic horror with a joke, or your rom-com with a graphic depiction of violence. It doesn’t work.
Steps to creating your opening line
- Plan out your scene.
This scene must start your story. There must be conflict. The conflict does not have to be the story’s main conflict, but it must be the first step in your character’s journey. No false starts. No matter how clever or funny the dialogue, or how much world-building, or character building you have in the scene, if the conflict isn’t part of the character’s journey, it does not get the responsibility of being your first chapter. There is too much at stake to waste those critical first pages not telling the story.
- Visualize your character at the beginning of this scene.
Have a clear picture of where your character is, what she wants, and what is in her way. Once you have this, you can decide where you need to start your scene. Only show the reader enough for the conflict to make sense.
- Now write what is right in front of your character’s face.
This can be literally right in front of their face, or it can be the last thought that runs through your character’s mind. Remember the character must be focused on his current conflict. The opening line must introduce or lead to this conflict.
Have something? Now make sure it passes Gerke’s test. Is it simple, engaging, and appropriate for the tone of the book?
Yes? Great job. If not, figure out which element isn’t working and try again.
A memorable opening line can sell your book
Writing your opening line is difficult, but it’s not impossible. The effective opening is a simple, engaging hook that introduces your story and gives the reader a reason to continue. By using Gerke’s checklist you will be sure you have created the introduction your novel deserves.
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Further reading: (affiliate, but I genuinely recommend this book)