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Make Promises, Not Traps: How to Write Honest and Engaging First Lines

January 14, 2019

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.

 

Hook Readers

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?

23 Comments

  1. Ariel Ashira

    Whew, that was good, Brandon!! Need to go work on my first line some more now… 😀

    Reply
    • Rike

      Hi, well famous Pride and Prejudice came to mind. That funny
      Comment about that a man of fortune must be in need of a wife? It oerfectly matches the whole story.
      And yes, there were story who betrayed me.Not in the first line. In the middle of rhe book.
      I bought one where rhe main character complained about how undesirable a fate as a princess or hero is. And the starts her tale hiw she stumbled into it. It was a funny, hilarious story at first, exactly what I needed at that time and changed in the middle into a tale of betrayal and heartbreak. I can’t say that the text was not true, since she didcomplain about the perils of heroes, but the tone let me astray. It is still in my bookshelf as a bittersweet reminder of what makes an almost good book.
      And a lot of books and series change tone in the middle. I am so hurt that I seldom try unknown books or authors this days.

  2. Deborah

    Thank you so much for sharing! I have read much about hooking a potential reader, but never heard it explained like you did. Very interesting and insightful! I am close to self publishing my first novel and have put much thought into my first line, but now plan to re-read and re- consider what I’ve written. Thank you Brandon!

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      Glad this was helpful. I hope your book launch goes well!

  3. Daeus Lamb

    Ah, wow. That makes so much sense.

    Reply
  4. Mariposa Aristeo

    Wow, I really love the points you made in this article! 👏🏻 I never thought about hooks “trapping” innocent bookworms into reading a book that isn’t right for them. You’ve helped me to see opening lines in a whole new light (also, I give you an A+ for mentioning a dinosaur book in this 😜🦖).

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      Dinosaurs! I thought about tagging you specifically, but I figured you’d find it anyway.

  5. Laura

    Exactly! You explain this so much better than I do. Forwarding article… Okay, well, I’m back. 😀

    Thank you so much!!

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      Thanks for the read and the share. (And for the record, this took a couple good drafts and many overseeing eyes. So… it’s all good.)

  6. I, David

    Great advice, sir. Thanks for yet another outstanding article.

    Now onto the application of it…

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      … aka the scary part.

  7. Katie Hanna

    WOW THIS IS REALLY HELPFUL.

    I especially appreciate your reassurance that it’s okay to go back and rewrite your first line multiple times, even though it’s hard work. Because you’re right . . . no matter how much we know about our story beforehand, we can’t know its true essence til we’ve laid it allllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll out on the page. (Kind of like when I was in college and my professors would tell me to write my thesis statement last. An opening line is like a thesis statement!! WHAT. mind = blown)

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      *gasp*
      you’re right
      I should have used that analogy
      cool.
      Thanks for reading!

  8. Catherine Roche

    Great article! I’m definitely saving this one.

    The first first line that popped into my head was the famous “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” from Pride and Prejudice. That line contains the essence of the entire story.

    Next comes the first line of The Hunger Games: “When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.” The first two paragraphs (because I believe that line is a paragraph of its own) contain a hook, but are still entirely honest and communicate the story very clearly, all the way to “This is the day of the reaping.”

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      Yes, exactly. Thanks for reading!

  9. Mallory O'Bier

    Interesting, thought-provoking article! ☺Yes, choosing a book at the bookstore can be difficult. I’ve been disappointed many times before. The first line of a book helps me figure out if there’s a chance I might be able to trust the author that they have enough skill to craft a thoroughly worthwhile tale. If it looks interesting, I’ll flip through to try and determine whether the writing is consistent. It’s painful to be reading and enjoying a book only to discover somewhere in the middle, or worse, near the end, that it fails to deliver on its promises.

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      *painful agreement*
      Yes, the more often we can avoid that feeling, the better place the world will be a better place

  10. Kayla Skywriter

    Thanks for the article. I just had to rewrite my first line for other reasons, but now I think I should try again.

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      (sorry to make you do rework lol) But YEAH GO YOU. Rewriting first lines is scary. You’re a brave human.

  11. Emma Caton

    *Gives a round of applause* Amazing! This article was amazing, and TOTALLY RIGHT! First scentences though coming up with a good one is difficult) are essential! I love your articles, they give so much good advice! 🙂

    Reply

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