You know what’s the hardest part of writing a book? Besides the writing and the outlining and the scene construction and editing and . . . okay . . . every other part. This bit is really the most intimidating, I promise.
The hardest part is making yourself start.
Prevailing advice, endless online articles, and the image of the latest huge seller, hang over your head like a constant cloud. And the cloud isn’t merely decorative. As your mind goes blank and all the story ideas in your head flee in terror, this cloud is shrieking. YOU HAVE TO GRAB READERS BY THE THROAT WITH YOUR FIRST LINE, grip their jugular with steel pincers made of story in that first paragraph and never let go, CHOKE THEM WITH YOUR BRILLIANCE and action and drama and puppies and mortal danger, yes all of that, all at once, all on the first page, don’t let them look away for an instant, oh great, you lost them, okay bye, they’re gone now and they’ll never buy your book.
Okay. Deep breaths. Calm down, SE.
It really is like that when you sit down to start. At least, it is for me. And fighting through the noise to write down those first few words is actively difficult.
Let’s combat the panic by looking at some actual, published first lines. These are all from authors who have achieved what I would call a universally accepted measure of “success”, so we’re going to look at these lines on the premise that they worked. Why did they work? What did this author do to capture our attention? Is it actually super gripping in the very first paragraph, or did they take some time to build up the un-put-downableness of the story?
1. Romancing the Duke, Tessa Dare
Genre: Regency/Historical romance
“The name Isolde Ophelia Goodnight did rather spell a life of tragedy. Izzy could look at her situation and see just that. Motherless at a young age. Fatherless now, as well. Penniless. Friendless. But she’d never been hopeless.”
Verdict: Establishes the mood and gives us a rough frame. Immediate sympathy engendered, a mystery to be solved, some obvious urgency, plus a natural introduction to the heroine by her name and fun, spirited sounding nickname. It’s a full set up.
2. The Hating Game, Sally Thorne
Genre: Contemporary romance
“I have a theory. Hating someone feels disturbingly similar to being in love with them. I’ve had a lot of time to compare love and hate, and these are my observations.”
Verdict: A statement which contrasts two universal ideas for an immediate pique in interest, we want to know more and we’ve already formed our own opinion on this love/hate idea.
3. Vision in White, Nora Roberts
Genre: Contemporary romance
“By the time she was eight, Mackensie Elliot had been married fourteen times. She’d married each of her three best friends—as both bride and groom—her best friend’s brother (under his protest), two dogs, three cats, and a rabbit”
Verdict: The unexpected gives immediate interest. Some humor, and we get an idea of the heroine’s background and the types of games she played with her friends which creates a little empathy. Establishes tone, as well as the author’s voice.
4. Matilda, Roald Dahl
Genre: Children’s classic
“It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.”
Verdict: Silly, unexpected, and a bit outrageous, which excites interest. Depending on our own experiences, it can ring very true, as well.
5. Sandry’s Book, The Circle of Magic Quartet, Tamora Pierce
Genre: Middle Grade fantasy
“Blue eyes wide, Lady Sandrilene fa Toren watched her near-empty oil lamp. Her small mouth quivered as the flame at the end of the wick danced and shrank, throwing grim shadows on the barrels of food and water that shared her prison. When that flame was gone, she would be without light in this windowless storeroom.”
Verdict: Drama, danger, and tension are immediate and urgent. There’s a mystery to be solved, quickly.
6. Coraline, Neil Gaiman
Genre: Children’s fantasy
“Coraline discovered the door a little while after they moved into the house. it was a very old house—it had an attic under the roof and a cellar under the ground and an overgrown garden with huge old trees in it.”
Verdict: Mood! It’s already a bit dark and mysterious and adventurous. The simple fact of the door is very significant and the first sentence hints at it.
7. Thud! Terry Pratchett
“Thud . . . that was the sound the heavy club made as it connected with the head. The body jerked, and slumped back. And it was done, unheard, unseen: the perfect end, a perfect solution, a perfect story.”
Verdict: Immense significance for the rest of the book. “Thud” is going to be a huge plot point. Immediate mystery and a sense that things are not as they seem. Tension, drama, a set-up for the entire novel. Pratchett tends to build by slow layers, so his beginnings are usually more intriguing than dramatic or tense.
8. Pet Sematary, Stephen King
“Louis Creed, who had lost his father at three and who had never known a grandfather, never expected to find a father as he entered his middle age, but that was exactly what happened . . . although he called this man a friend, as a grown man must do when he finds the man who should have been his father relatively late in life.”
Verdict: Statements of simple fact, which engender immediate empathy. An introduction to the main character, and a bit of set up for what will drive the novel later. Again, King is more of a slow build author than an in-your-face with the first sentence type.
9. IT, Stephen King
“The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years—if it ever did end—began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.”
Verdict: Dramatic and almost frightening statements of fact, creating an immediate mystery. Saying “the terror” without any details naturally makes us want to know more. It sets up the first of many terrifying events, and sets the tone for the rest of the novel, too.
10. The Terror, Dan Simmons
Genre: Historical Fiction/Horror
“Captain Crozier comes up on deck to find his ship under attack by celestial ghosts. Above him—above Terror—shimmering fold of light lunge but then quickly withdraw like the colourful arms of aggressive but ultimately uncertain spectres. Ectoplasmic skeletal fingers extend toward the ship, open, prepare to grasp, and pull back.”
Verdict: Tension, drama, urgency, a sense of dread, all wrapped up in some beautiful language. The theme of being under attack will basically continue for the rest of the novel. Gives a sense of atmosphere, as well.
Looking at these examples, there are some definite tactics which seem to work. You could consider mixing and matching these ideas to create your own opening:
- Introductions are flavored by the genre you’re writing in. A sense of frightening tension is probably not appropriate to open a historical romance (someone else already thought of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies).
- Including the main character’s name whose POV you’re starting with seems like a good idea.
- Set the tone for the rest of the book.
- Set up the opening event.
- Use humor/something outrageous.
- Present an unexpected contrast or idea.
- Immediate drama or tension the MC is immersed in at the opening.
- A statement which invites the reader to draw their own conclusions.
- Generate empathy with the character introduced.
- Introduce your voice.
- Create a mood.