First lines are like foreplay.
You’ve already hooked your reader with the cover, title, and blurb. You’ve picked them up. Now they’re back at your place.
What’s your opening move?
How do you set the stage for what’s about to happen? Is it going to be tantric, rough, tender, completely lacklustre, or completely mind-blowing?
Will they even want to go through with it? Will they change their mind, cite a headache or an early meeting as an excuse, and make their hasty exit, putting you back on the shelf and choosing another? Or will they fork over ten bucks and lay prostrate on the bed as the experience unfolds?
Okay… enough with this weird metaphor. Let’s get to the techniques. Whether you want to be a Pulitzer Prize winner or pen fast-paced pulp, a great opening line is key. Here are 10 techniques to nail it.
1. Make the first line mirror the last – American Psycho (Bret Easton Ellis)
Study the first line in Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho:
ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER here is scrawled in blood red lettering on the side of the Chemical Bank near the corner of Eleventh and First and is in print large enough to be seen from the backseat of the cab as it lurches forward in the traffic leaving Wall Street and just as Timothy Price notices the words a bus pulls up, the advertisement for Les Miserables on its side blocking his view, but Price who is with Pierce & Pierce and twenty-six doesn’t seem to care because he tells the driver he will give him five dollars to turn up the radio, “Be My Baby” on WYNN, and the driver, black, not American, does so.
Now study the last line:
Someone has already taken out a Minolta cellular phone and called for a car, and then, when I’m not really listening, watching instead someone who looks remarkably like Marcus Halberstam paying a check, someone asks, simply, not in relation to anything, “Why?” and though I’m very proud that I have cold blood and that I can keep my nerve and do what I’m supposed to do, I catch something, then realize it: Why? and automatically answering, out of the blue, for no reason, just opening my mouth, words coming out, summarizing for the idiots: “Welll, though I know I should have done thatinstead of not doing it, I’m twenty-seven for Christ sakes and this is, uh, how life presents itself in a bar or in a club in New York, maybe anywhere, at the end of the century and how people, you know, me, behave, and this is what being Patrick means to me, I guess, so well, yup, uh…” and this is followed by a sigh, then a slight shrug and another sigh, and above one of the doors covered by red velvet drapes in Harry’s is a sign and on the sign in letters that match the drapes’ color are the words THIS IS NOT AN EXIT.
The first and last lines mirror each other in pace and structure and the inane interior monologue of the central protagonist, Patrick Bateman.
But they do more than that. Look at the first capitalised words. Then look at the last capitalised words.
This is a self-conscious nod to the act of reading itself. Those words (“ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE”) are not just scrawled on the wall. They are a direct instruction to the reader. You are entering a novel but you are also entering Bateman’s mind. To do that, you need to abandon all hope because there is no hope.
The ending mirrors this self-conscious nod again. “THIS IS NOT AN EXIT” says that, although you are putting the book down, it is not over. It will stay with you. Bateman also has no redemption.
American Psycho as a whole is a masterful lesson in writing. The beginning here does a lot of things – things you will need to read the book to understand – but the key lesson here is this:
Consider your work as a whole when writing your first line. Anticipate the themes and foreshadow the ending.
2. Start “in medias res” – ‘Floating Bridge’ (Alice Munro)
Alice Munro, one of the best short story writers of all time, knows a thing or two about opening lines. Study the opening line to her short story ‘Floating Bridge’ from Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage:
One time she had left him.
That’s it. What does that mean? Who is ‘she’? Who is ‘him’? Why did she leave him? Why did she return? We assume she returned because Munro writes “one time”.
So many questions. Just six simple words and yet we find ourselves with almost six different questions that all require complex answers.
This is classic Munro. She dumps us in the middle of a story, almost like we’re in the middle of a conversation, and then she lets us flounder to find out what’s going on. Yet, despite the confusion in piecing things together, we feel a familiarity. We know this person. We know the narrator. We know “she” and “him”.
It’s subtle, it’s understated, it’s genius.
3. Estrange the reader – The Book Thief (Markus Zusak)
The Russian formalists believed that the key to great writing is to make the everyday strange. Make the familiar foreign.
And how better to do that than make the narrator of your book Death himself?
Study how Zusak begins his #1 New York Times bestseller, The Book Thief:
First the colors.
This is even more disorientating and strange than Munro’s beginning. At least with Munro’s opening we have some semblance of reality. We know what’s going on. But Zusak’s opening line is a real blow to the old noggin.
It’s short, it’s simple, it’s weird, and it begs for you to read on. It also – just like Easton Ellis’ opening – foreshadows a major theme/stylistic convention of the novel: kinaesthesia.
I can’t resist. I have to go on and quote the next few lines because they are genius:
Then the humans.
That’s usually how I see things.
Or at least, how I try.
*** HERE IS A SMALL FACT ***
You are going to die.
Do you want to read on?
I certainly did. I whizzed through the book in a few evenings.
Reading this opening, we still don’t know who’s talking. But we know he’s not human. Maybe we can figure out that it’s Death.
Then we get that delightful notice in bold, capitalised with asterisks either side. The narrator talks to us directly and tells us a fact that pierces each one of us to our core. He’s direct. No bullshit. And it feels like we are stepping outside of the conventional structure of storytelling. Almost like we’re looking at an artefact in a museum, a photograph in an album, or a piece of evidence in a courtroom.
We’re hooked. Zusak has used structure, tone, and estrangement to hook us.
4. Make non-fiction read like fiction – ‘A Mob Killing and Flawed Justice’ (Alissa J. Rubin)
Pulitzer Prize winning journalism reads like a thriller novel.
Study this opening from Alissa J. Rubin’s extraordinary work examining the trial surrounding an Afghan woman’s public death:
KABUL, Afghanistan — Farkhunda had one chance to escape the mob that wanted to kill her.
We are immediately pulled in to the fray that Rubin is about to detail. We know the victim, Farkhunda, and we know her situation. It’s life or death. Time is running out. This first line is as taut as a hooked fishing line.
Almost every single word does something to increase the drama and suspense: “one chance”, “escape the mob”, “wanted to kill her”.
If we didn’t know any better, we would think we were reading a high-octane thriller. The writing pulls us in and then we realise: this isn’t fiction.
What happens next – the details of Farkhunda’s tragic demise and the unfair lack of due process that follows – is all the more hard-hitting because we have been dragged into the narrative and forced to invest with the victim.
5. Make fiction read like non-fiction – The Day of the Jackal (Frederick Forsyth)
As can be expected from a novel that won the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America, Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal grabs the reader in the very first line:
It is cold at six-forty in the morning of a March day in Paris, and seems even colder when a man is about to be executed by firing squad.
We’ve seen a journalist using the techniques of thriller writers and now we can see a thriller writer using the techniques of journalism.
We are immediately confronted with the facts: the when, the where, the what.
Forsyth also gives his text a pounding immediacy in the first three words: ‘It is cold’. The narrative is not written in the present tense but beginning in this way drags you full force into the narrative. We’re right there, aren’t we? We can see the frost spirals of air as we breathe out. Maybe we can see the sun rising over a gray paris landscape. And we can see many men with guns and one unfortunate man without any.
Forsyth also places the most important and striking image at the end of the sentence so it is strong in our minds.
We can’t help but read on.
6. Make intention and obstacle clear – Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger (Stephen King)
One of the many things I learned from the Aaron Sorkin Screenwriting Masterclass is that good writing is made up of intention and obstacle. What does the character want? And what’s stopping them from getting it?
We can see this powerful lesson in the opening to King’s fantastic fantasy series, Dark Tower:
The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
So simple. Yet so brilliant.
The intention and obstacle are clear. The man in black wants to get away. The gunslinger wants to get the man in black. Classic chase scenes have intention and obstacle built right in.
The first line is also beautiful in its dreamlike quality. ‘Man in black’ sounds mythical. ‘Gunslinger’ sounds like some archetype etched in by so many childhood memories of spaghetti westerns. And the desert. A barren, brutal environment. What are they doing there?
I also geeked out about the grammar. Notice how King puts a comma after the first clause. He didn’t have to. But he chose to. He wanted to. He wanted us to pause as if summoning the distance between the two figures as they traverse the land.
7. Tease the reader by holding back – Twilight (Stephenie Meyer)
Want to learn how to write a killer opening line? Take a lesson from world class copywriters. It certainly seems like Meyer has picked up a thing or two from the language of advertisements.
Study this opening line from Twilight:
I’d never given much thought to how I would die – though I’d had reason enough in the last few months – but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.
Like this? Like what?! Tell us! Tell us!
Meyer’s opening line is a massive tease. It’s a matter of life and death and we’re left with so many questions. Questions that will only be answered if we read on.
Notice how she ends on the word “this”.
That’s a powerful technique that advertisers have used over and over again. And it never gets old because it always works. Next time you’re scrolling through clickbait, take note of how many headlines (particularly ones that make you click) use the word “this”.
“This” refers to something you cannot see. You don’t have the information yet. But if you read on, you will. And why wouldn’t we want to read on? We want to know what’s happened in the last few months to give the narrator reason to think of death. And where is she now? What’s happening? Is she dying? If so, how? And by whom?
Tease your reader. Make them ask questions. And promise to answer them… If they read on.
8. Be raw – Code Name Verity (Elizabeth Wein)
Study the first line in Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity:
I AM A COWARD.
Boom. How great is that?
So simple. So direct. So raw.
There is so much baggage in those four words. What has the narrator gone through to reach this conclusion? We get hints of a great story to come. Of opportunities missed or lost or abandoned. What happened?
Even though we don’t know the narrator yet, we can relate to her. We can all relate to feelings of cowardice. We can all relate to failure. We can all relate to feeling like we’re not good enough, like we’ve been a traitor. It hurts. We all know the sting of defeat well. And Wein manages to conjure that up in the first line.
Now that we already feel akin to the narrator, we have something in common, and we trust her (after all, being raw fosters trust), we can’t help but keep reading. We want to get to know this person. We want to learn her story.
9. Begin with a name – Munro, King, Mitchell, Nabokov, Melville, Dickens
You won’t realise how common this technique is until you’re conscious of it. Take note of the next 20 or so stories you read. You’ll be surprised how many of them start with a name.
They might start with just a name, a one-word sentence, calling out from the ether, like in Alice Munro’s ‘Family Furnishings’:
Or in Stephen King’s The Stand:
Or in David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet:
Some stories introduce the main character by way of the narrator talking to you, the reader, in a way that is amiable and polite. This is the case in the iconic opening of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick:
Call me Ishmael.
Some stories will introduce the main character by way of dissecting his or her name and how they came to it. This is the case in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations:
My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip.
Some stories will begin with a name and then play with it, as though it were music, as though the name contained the essence of the entire story to come. This is the case in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita:
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.
If in doubt, begin your story with the name of the hero, villain, location, whatever. Make it vibrant. Give it meaning. Play with it. Or simply have someone call it out.
10. Make it more than a reading experience – ‘Guts’ (Chuck Palahniuk)
One of the most striking short stories I have ever read is ‘Guts’ by Chuck Palahniuk. It begins like this:
One word. A direct instruction to the reader.
Just like the story itself, this opening is out of the ordinary. Readers aren’t used to be spoken to directly unless it’s in a ‘call-me-Ishmael’ fashion.
So the writer wants us to take a breath? Why? Is he serious? We’ve got to read on, right?
This is what you encounter when you read on:
Take in as much air as you can.
This story should last about as long as you can hold your breath, and then just a little bit longer. So listen as fast as you can.
Then the narrator dives into his story.
We’re not just reading a story now. We’re actively invested in the experience. We are conscious of our breath. And we’re wondering how it relates to the story.
Palahniuk also ends this story tremendously and makes you see why you had to take a breath in the first place. I won’t spoil it for you. Go read it.
Keep a log of first lines
Every writer should have a journal of first and last lines. Something you can refer to whenever you need inspiration.
Collect first lines the way some people collect stamps. Examine them often and analyse exactly what makes them so great, why they grabbed you the way they did.
Someone has even put their favourite first and last lines up on a website dedicated to this sole purpose. It makes for great browsing and might even help you find your next read.
Practice writing first lines
As well as a folder of first and last lines, I also have notebooks and journals bursting with first lines to short stories, articles, and novels that don’t and probably never will exist.
Honing first lines is one of the most important skills a writer can have. If you can write a killer first line, you’re well on your way to sucking in readers like a giant vacuum cleaner.