Great First Line!?!

Updated: Nov 12, 2020

Your first line needs to entice, intrigue, surprise. And to get their attention & trust for long enough to allow your (wonderful and exciting) first chapter to do its work and hook them for good. But the challenge is not to try too hard with that first sentence. It won’t work if it seems trite or gimicky. Try to write a real, honest opening sentence that makes everyone excited to read on.

Here is an opening line from a contemporary Y.A. novel that I really like:

It was the kind of August day that hinted at monsoons, and the year was 1774, though not for very much longer.

Is it the end of a calendar year, or is something more magical and time-twitchy going on? The latter, of course! And the book fulfills the promise of its first line as it hops between different times and places to great effect. You could do far worse than this opening line of The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig.

Sometimes the opening just needs to tell you this is a place you want to be: both the imagined place of the story and the very real place between book covers that you’ll inhabit when reading:

Between the deep forest and the gentle, green hills was a town with roofs the color of toasted bread.

I want to go there, don’t you? It’s from Eiko Kadono’s novel, Kiki’s Delivery Service; both a fine read itself and  the basis of a wonderful animated film by Hayao Miyazaki that brought the town and many more landscapes to silver-screen life.

I also love the simplicity and pathos of this opening line:

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.

It introduces Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, which is all about loss among other things, so it sets the stage perfectly for the great story to follow.

For my novel, Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key, I open with this sentence:

The birdcage was in the attic, closed up inside a dusty wooden box.

I’m not the one to judge my own writing, but I did try to keep it simple and true to the story. Here’s a bit more of the opening from Silent Lee. See what you think. Does it draw you into the story and make you want to know what happens next? It did that for me as the author and soon I had written more:

On the box was written in faded handwriting: My Birdcage. Handle With Respect. For true heirs of Generous Lee only. Silent, this probably means you. Tell your mother to stuff it. She can’t have my birdcage even if she wants it, although she probably won’t.

Silent read the label with a frown, puzzled not only by the oddity of the message but also by how old and faded it was. She had been away from Great Aunt Gen’s house for only a month. But time was complex when it came to Generous Lee, who had lived mostly in a world that was a full century out of date.

The opening line propels the story and thus the reader. But it also does something rather special that we writers secretly need. It propels us.

No great story is fully imagined in outline form. You have an idea but you have to write it to make it grow up. Same with the characters. They are faintly real in your mind and they get more solid with each chapter, until finally they are living and breathing alongside you. So crafting a good opening sentence, paragraph, page—this is how we get our stories birthed. Maybe you’ll rewrite your opener and make it even stronger, but at least start out with a line that makes you want to get to know your own story better.

Then see where it takes you!

Alex Hiam, Author of Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key,  Silent Lee and the Oxford Adventure, Drift, Blood, and other magical adventures

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