What makes a great first line in a novel?
First and foremost, it must capture the reader’s attention. A captivating opening line can pull a reader into even an average plot (for a while, anyway), but a mediocre start may turn readers off before they can assess the quality of the story that follows.
There are several ways to grab the attention of readers. Building suspense, appealing to a reader’s curiosity, and painting a vivid picture are among the most common. Optimally, combining these three approaches can ensure a book gets off to a great start.
Below are memorable first lines from notable novels. See if you can determine which of the three approaches are used to capture the reader’s attention.
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE by Jane Austen (1813): ”It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT by Norman Maclean (1989): ”In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing.”
I CAPTURE THE CASTLE by Dodie Smith (1948): “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”
THE BELL JAR by Sylvia Plath (1963): “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”
NEUROMANCER by William Gibson (1984): ”The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
THE GRAVEYARD BOOK by Neil Gaiman (2008): ”There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.”
The first three authors clearly pique the reader’s curiosity in setting the stage for what follows. The final three paint a distinct picture and build suspense. You could argue that several of these lines combine all three approaches.
The opening line of a novel must also serve as a guidepost for what is to follow, setting proper expectations for the reader. A suspenseful opening is appropriate in setting the stage for a murder mystery, but might establish the wrong tone for a romantic comedy. In the six novels above, the reader gets a pretty good idea of what is to follow with each of the first lines. Having read two of these books (albeit years ago), I can attest that the authors followed through with the expectations they set.
I recently returned to my prior novels and assessed the opening lines. Oddly, I found my first book, CORRUPT CONNECTION, had the best start:
“In an unmarked commercial building on the Lower East Side, researchers were puzzled with what to try next. An hour into testing a biological computer implant, the situation became desperate.”
My current work in progress is a murder mystery. Its working title is THE MYSTERY OF ROUND PEAK MOUNTAIN. The unsolved murder of Mayor Hank Richards and rumors of moonshine money stashed in the Carolina foothills take center stage. Here’s the opening:
“A door slammed on the garage side of the house, jolting Hank Richards from the comfort of his leather recliner. Richards tossed down his book and strode to the front window as the grandfather clock in the hallway gonged nine times.”
Without spoiling the plot, I can tell you Richards doesn’t make it past page 3. The first chapter is actually a flashback, and the former mayor’s unsolved murder is the basis for the entire novel.
I’m less than half complete with my current novel, and the opening line and initial chapters will likely be modified before the manuscript goes final. I recommend all writers hold off on finalizing the opening of their novel until it’s ready for print. Authors only get one chance at making a good first impression with a reader, and if they’re lucky, they will get to do it again and again.
Please stop by and comment on Excerpts from my Work in Progress.