Get it Right from the First Line

I only get to read for pleasure for several minutes before I fall asleep each night. More and more, I’ve been reading ebooks on my phone, purchased based on the intersection of my tastes and BookBub promotions. With so little time to read for myself, my expectations are high—I want a really good book.

The other night, having just finished Kristen Cashore’s Graceling (long overdue), I had a that-book-was-so-awesome! hangover. Short of going on to the next book in the series (Bitterblue is already on my bookshelf), how was I going to top it? Opening up my e-library, I cruised a bunch of first lines—and was hopelessly underwhelmed. I couldn’t believe how many critically-acclaimed, bestselling novels had a middling to weak first line. Beyond the cover of a book, the opening is what hooks me as a reader, and a lame first line will mean putting the book aside—potentially forever. So what exactly makes a strong first line?

My favourite example is Ken Follet’s The Pillars of the Earth. This is the original “first line” I remember reading and thinking, “I can’t wait to see where it goes from here.” See for yourself:

“The small boys came early to the hanging.”

There is something so incongruous about this image that Follet has chosen to launch his story. Immediately, we see the disparity between our contemporary ideas and historical realities when kids were allowed, and even encouraged, to attend hangings. And why are they “early”? To get a good view? Totally disturbing—and very, very compelling.

As an agent reading sample pages, the trap I see writers fall into most often is a generic or dull first line: a reference to the weather, a description of the scenery, a character waking from a dream, a character bored in a classroom, etc. On the opposite end of the spectrum of first lines, I also see writers make the mistake of starting with a BANG—literally. Sometimes that action of the first sentence is so high, that without knowing anything about the context or character, it goes right over our heads as readers. What we are looking for is something in-between: we want to be intrigued. Does your first line make a reader ask questions? Does it require further reading for answers? Your first line should give your reader a way into your story.

Taking a random selection of 10 titles from my TBR list, let’s see what we can learn about first lines (in order of meh, to yeah!):

Well, we certainly know where we are located in space and time, but so what? ⭐

  • Jennifer Mathieu’s Moxie: “My English teacher, Mr. Davies, rubs a hand over his military buzz cut.”

This is a basic character description, and it isn’t even our main character! (Loved the Netflix movie, though!) ⭐

  • Kacen Callender’s Felix Ever After: “We push open the apartment building’s glass door, out into the yellow sunshine that’s a little too cheerful and bright.”

The weather is a trope used far too frequently. ⭐⭐

  • Daniel Kraus’s Bent Heavens: “Liv heard the town-hall gong seven times.”

I’m a fan-girl of this author’s work, but for a book I’ve heard is nightmare-worthy, I’m not feeling the horror here. ⭐⭐

  • Nahoko Uehashi’s The Beast Player (translated by Cathy Hirano): “Elin woke to the sound of the door opening.”

While I’m not a fan of characters waking or falling asleep in the first line, there is at least a hint of intrigue here. (Who is behind the door?) ⭐⭐⭐

  • Nic Stone’s Dear Martin: “From where he’s standing across the street, Justice can see her: Melo Taylor, ex-girlfriend, slumped over beside her Benz on the damp concrete of the FarmFresh parking lot.”

We learn so much about our main character in this one line: who he is, that he broke up with his girlfriend, and now she’s in bad shape. Conflict has already been introduced, and I definitely want to know how Justyce is going to handle this one. ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Why is she frozen? Why is she in the woods? This author already has me guessing! ⭐⭐⭐⭐

  • Aiden Thomas’s Cemetery Boys: “Yadriel wasn’t technically trespassing because he’d lived in the cemetery his whole life.”

Here we lead with a character that is doing something illegal, and also has an unconventional home. (Who lives in a cemetery?) ⭐⭐⭐⭐

  • Victoria Schwab’s This Savage Song: “The night Kate Harker decided to burn down the school chapel, she wasn’t angry or drunk.”

More illegal behavior, and we want to know exactly what is behind it! ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

  • Robin Talley’s As I Descended: “The Ouija board was Lily’s idea.”

We are dabbling in the occult, and something has gone terribly wrong. Yes, please! 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Based on the first line alone, looks like I’m reading Robin Talley’s As I Descended next. What do you think? How would you rate these first lines?

Drop your own first line in the comments for instant feedback. And if you need more help with your opening, check out our First Look service, our First Five Pages workshop, or get in touch!

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  1. We’ll work it out, Sam and I.

  2. From my untitled WIP — We’ll work it out, Sam and I.

    I hope you’ve since read Bitterblue. The title character is one of my favourites. Apropos the blog where the link to your post was referenced, Bitterblue has three openings: one in an unnumbered chapter ahead of the title page, a second in the prologue, and another for Chapter One. An interesting way to deal with those who insist on skipping the Prologue? All three avoid the pitfalls cum pratfalls mentioned in Olga’s latest post.

    • Putting it on the TBR list!

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