Start as you mean to go on: writing first lines

laptopI’ve recently started my third novel (14,000 words so far), and that got me thinking about writing first lines. About why they mattered, and what they meant, and also what makes a good first line.

Why should you care what your first line is?

You want to make an impact – a great first line will hook people in and get them interested, make them read on.

It can also help establish a voice – maybe the voice of the main character, or, if your novel is a crime novel, perhaps that of the killer or victim.

‘Five weeks after Kirsten Waller’s body was found in a clifftop cottage in Cornwall, Grace Hobden cleared away the lunch, checked to make sure her three children were playing on the climbing frame at the bottom of the garden, then went indoors to murder her husband.’ (Joanna Hines, The Murder Bird, Pocket Books, 2007)

The above tells us that Grace Hobden, despite apparently planning murder, still cared for her children and was tidy and meticulous. In that one first line we are already getting to know Grace.

Strong first lines can sometimes surprise; make the reader stop and think and wonder Why?

‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ (George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Penguin Classics, 2013).

And sometimes first lines contain the whole story – its essence, its meaning, or give a subtle hint of the ending. Or maybe not so subtle.

I’m cheating here because in the example below, technically, there is more than one line. But the lines are short so maybe that’s okay. In Ship of Haunts, my first novel, Carrin starts off saying, ‘Not every girl gets stalked by a ghost. Or haunted by a ship. The ghost was called Lily but the ship came first. It always did. The ship was Titanic. I drowned on that ship.’

Here, these lines tell us that Titanic is key to the novel, that Titanic sank (we all know that!) and that Carrin died on the ship. But how did she die if she’s telling the story?

First lines can also set the style of the novel – serious, humorous, etc. Here, for example:

bookshelves2‘I turned the Chrysler onto the Florida Turnpike with Rollo Kramer’s headless body in the trunk, and all the time I’m thinking I should have put some plastic down.’ Victor Gischler, Gun Monkeys, Dell Publishing, 2003). Obviously a grim theme, but with a touch of humour, nevertheless.

Writer Francine Prose says that the first line has two roles: to get your attention; and to transmit all the key aspects of the novel – emotion, language and theme. Being a mystery writer, she says, requires the writer to analyse every word in that first sentence and make it work, make it count and have meaning.

Quite a tall order.

Some first lines just invite us to read on.

‘Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write. (Ruth Rendell, A Judgement in Stone). A great writer and a great loss.

‘In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.’ (Carson McCullers, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter) You want to ask why they were always together.

‘It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.’ (Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar) Grim, but memorable.

Of course, in the end, your first line, whatever it may be, has only to be right and a good fit for your work, and one you’re happy with. But, in my opinion, it should be simple, striking and lead you into the next phase of the story.

But, don’t agonise so much over your first line that you never get to your second and your third. Your job is to write; perfection comes later…


Bunting, Joe. 7 Keys To Write the Perfect First Line of a Novel.

Reading Exercise: Top 10 Opening Lines of Mystery Novels on Los Angeles Mystery: Casebook of an Asian American Detective

By the way, the Hawkesbury LitFest in April was great – lots of writers, lots of readers, lots of fun. Those who missed it can always attend the August Hawkesbury Horticultural Show, where as well as fruit, flowers and veg, there will be readings from authors. Pray for good weather!

Article written by Ellie Stevenson, author.

This article is copyrighted material. Brief extracts including a link to this site can be quoted but the article must not be reproduced in full anywhere without the author’s written permission.

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6 thoughts on “Start as you mean to go on: writing first lines

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  1. Thanks for the shout-out for the HULitFest, Ellie – so pleased you were able to take part in the inaugural event! I love those first lines – and I’m so glad for the introduction to the author Francine Prose, what brilliant nominative determinism!


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