I rarely buy stuff on impulse, not even books. When I bring home a book I hadn’t planned to get, it’s because the cover and the first line grabbed my attention. Cover design usually isn’t an author’s responsibility, and even if you’ll be involved in yours, that comes at the end of the writing process. Instead of worrying about that prematurely, I want to talk about the other half of the equation—a story’s beginning.
Your novel’s opening line sells and sets up your story. It gives readers their first impression of your work. You hope it catches the eye of editors and (eventually) readers and drags them into your story with reckless abandon. The long and the short of it is that your first sentence’s job is to make sure it isn’t the last sentence people read.
Or is it?
I think the purpose a first line serves is grossly misunderstood. Most industry professionals treat first sentences like I did above. They say that the first sentence, page, and chapter’s goal is to persuade readers to buy and read your book. I call foul.
Hooking Readers (or Fish)
“Hooking readers” is typically considered the critical function of the first line. You’re supposed to spark curiosity or get people’s adrenaline pumping so they buy your book. Plus, you might prevent your manuscript from landing in the slush pile. Crafting an intriguing hook is heavily emphasized in the industry.
However, the “hook a reader” approach is potentially a selfish way to write. Selling books is (to understate the point) important. However, writers often become so fixated on hooking readers (especially when lobbying for that first publishing deal) that they forget their books aren’t meant for everyone.
Books are fickle. A book that speaks to one reader’s soul may be a meaningless snoozefest to his best friend. A book that has a thousand five-star reviews might have a one-star review hiding in the shadows. Every book has a target audience. If you write a hook that attracts readers from outside that audience, that will result in disgruntled reviewers. Your intent shouldn’t be to capture as many readers as possible, but to give the polite cold shoulder to anyone who won’t enjoy reading past the first chapter.
Making a Promise
If creating a hook that invites some readers while shooing others away sounds hard, we think alike. I have no idea how to pull that off; probably only a psychologist could. Instead, we need to evaluate our first-line philosophy.
Why do you buy books? Probably not because one jumped off a shelf, opened to page one, and after a glance at the first line, you couldn’t put it down. You buy books because you love reading.
When a bookworm pulls your novel off the shelf (yay cover design), he’s hoping the contents will bring him joy. You don’t need to bait, trick, or drag him in. He’s already interested. But he’s hesitating because he’s been hurt before. He’s read books he regrets wasting time on. He’s been hooked, only for the author to fail to deliver.
If someone is standing in a bookstore, holding your book and scanning the first page, he’s not looking to be hooked. He’s trying to determine whether your book appeals to him. If it does, he’ll automatically be hooked. He’s at the store to purchase a book.
Approach your first line as a promise of future events instead of a hook, and layer it with the essence of your novel. If a prospective reader likes it, he’ll like the book. In a word, your first line should be honest.
Writing Honest First Lines
All stories are unique—even those within the same genre. The Lord of the Rings and Jurassic Park are both fantastic works of speculative fiction. But they feel different because of their essences. The Lord of the Rings is magical and poetic, whereas Jurassic Park seems unnervingly real despite it’s far-fetched scientific fallacies. This dissimilarity is reflected in their opening lines.
The Fellowship of the Ring begins with, “When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.” This sentence is upbeat and fanciful. It also contains an element of purity and innocence, which becomes central to the thematic thrust of the series. Compare that to the opening of Jurassic Park: “The tropical rain fell in drenching sheets, hammering the corrugated roof of the clinic building, roaring down the metal gutters, splashing on the ground in a torrent.” Michael Crichton uses sensory details to suck readers into a grim world and convince them that dinosaurs exist again.
These two lines are effective because the rest of the books flow from them. They’re not followed by a different, disappointing story. They hint at a certain flavor and don’t deviate from it. Note that neither of these lines resemble traditional hooks. They don’t need to, because they accurately represent the stories they begin. The authors trust that as long as a book is consistent from cover to cover, a reader who is excited over the first line will be equally enthused by the last.
If creating a first line that contains the essence of your story sounds difficult, we think alike. I won’t cop out this time though. I have a few tricks up my sleeve to help you write a first line that not only presents your story honestly but also interestingly.
Tip #1: Feature Your Narrator
If your book has a fly-on-the-wall type narrator, open with that. Or, if at any point your narrator will address readers directly, indicate that from the start. Speaking to readers is fine, but some people don’t like it, and it’s jarring if it occurs seventy-five, fifty, or even ten pages into a book. Meeting a narrator on any page besides the first is unpleasant.
One of my favorite books, Peter Pan, is written in omniscient POV. The narrator frequently intrudes to explain the happenings. (After all, Peter isn’t exactly a trustworthy source of information.) With an iconic first line, J. M. Barrie beautifully establishes his book’s premise in addition to its unique, lofty narrative style: “All children, except one, grow up.”
If your story has a narrator, or even just a distinct narrative style, reveal that in your first sentence.
Tip #2: Know Your Niche
This one involves soul searching. To develop a business plan, you need to understand what niche you’re going to fill in the market. To stand out from the competition, you need to pinpoint why your product is special. That applies to fiction too. Why is your book distinct from others on the shelves? Because of your protagonist’s relatable anxiety? The high-stakes psychological dilemmas your characters grapple with? Quippy dialogue?
The Lord of the Rings is a fantasy novel about purity clashing against violent evil. What better prelude to a theme of innocence than a birthday party, which evokes images of childhood and laugher? Jurassic Park is a realistic, gritty take on the dangers of overstepping human bounds. That essence is established with an opening description that practically smears mud on your shoes and ties knots in your drenched hair. Peter Pan’s opening line introduces the novel’s whimsical style, plus the pervasive theme of childhood and growing up.
So, I ask again, why is your book different? Answering this question requires experience, maturity, and time spent writing your story to discover what sets it apart. If you’re not yet sure what your niche is, make a close guess. What comes easily to you? Dialogue? Description? Plot twists? Your niche is probably an area you excel at, so that’s a good place to start.
Once you’ve figured out your niche, try to weave it into your first line. The niche for my WIP is fun, relatable character thoughts. I’ve developed voices for all my characters, which (I hope) are engaging and memorable. So, when I write my first line, it should probably be something like “Well, this seemed like a good idea yesterday.” That would be more true to the story than a clever description of the skyline. On the other hand, if my niche was gorgeous sensory descriptions, the skyline might deserve the focus.
Are you feeling overwhelmed now? Don’t worry, I’ll relieve some of the pressure in my next section.
Tip #3: Allow Yourself to Rewrite
Confession: Rewriting the first sentence of my novel is excruciating. I can handle editing almost any other part of a novel, but I often struggle to tweak my first sentence. It’s sacred to me. The start of the journey. The longest-tenured portion of my manuscript. So, when I urge you to revise your first line (possibly multiple times) after finishing your first draft, believe me, I understand the pain.
Your characters, setting, narrator, and even your style and grammar are major components of your novel’s essence. Unfortunately, you won’t assemble most of those at the outset. Whether you’re a pantser writing your first line moments after the story popped into your head, or an outliner who has a minute-by-minute timeline with annotated maps of every city your story touches, your novel’s essence can only be developed through writing your first draft.
The longer you spend on a project, the more clearly its essence forms in your head, and the more prepared you’ll be to write a compelling and honest first line. So, when you’re done with your first draft and your story’s voice is ringing in your ears, backtrack to take another swing at your first line. You’ll find that your second version is a more accurate summary of your story without you even trying.
Behold, the circle of life. In spite of all my arguments about readers being eager to buy books, you still must provide a hook that entices them to continue reading. The key is to remain honest. Don’t hook readers with an action scene if most of your story’s conflict is interpersonal, or with a statement like “The filters were up today and everything looked red” if your story isn’t sci-fi.
You believe you have a great story to tell, so you don’t need to go outside of that to make it captivating. Let readers decide if your story suits them instead of attempting to please everyone. That way, the people who turn to page two will be headed down the path to a fulfilling read, and you won’t end up with one-star ratings from romance readers on your psychological thriller.
I’ve mentioned a couple examples, but I barely scratched the surface of magnificent first lines. What are some of your favorites? How did they reflect the story honestly (or dishonestly)? Have you ever felt that a book’s opening lied to you?
“Well, I’m back.” The emotion those words spark in Lord of the Rings fans across the world perfectly describes how Brandon feels on a daily basis when he finishes writing and starts working on homework. (Yes, writing comes first.) His fictional worlds, where the suns never set and Rutel is Servant-Lord of the Sky, leave him wanting more…but unfortunately life is still a thing. When Brandon can’t hang out in Faërie, he fills his time with normal mortal things like homework, work, friends, (oxford commas) and family. He enjoys backyard football (or any sport), board games, English country dancing, and reading. He doesn’t particularly enjoy (but still spends time) driving, doing math, and waiting for YouTube ads to end.
Brandon enjoys writing-related-but-still-not-actually-writing activities including critiquing, outlining, and updating his blog, The Woodland Quill. Some of his favorite books (there are too many to list) are The 100 Cupboards by N.D. Wilson, Look and Live by Matt Papa (warning: nonfiction), and Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie. (Due to his Lord of the Rings reference at the beginning of this blurb, he’s not going to bring that pinnacle of literary genius up again, although he probably should and sort of just did.)
Brandon lives on the Nebraska plains, where the people don’t actually live in teepees but do plant as much corn as the stereotypes suggest. His wonderful family keeps him somewhat grounded in reality, his friends keep his extroverted personality from imploding while he’s writing, and his ice cream keeps him…happy.
Poor ice cream.