Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Indie Tuesday—Crafting the Perfect First Line

by: Jessica Keller @AuthorKeller

Have you ever shaken hands with someone only for them to offer a cold, limp, awkward greeting? A book with a week first line leaves a reader with the same feeling. Avoid that at all costs.

In fiction, the first line has to pull the reader in. Make them wonder or grip them enough to walk to the register and by the book. Grabbing them doesn’t have to mean giving your reader a total shock because that doesn’t fit the tone of many books, but it must make a reader want more. Spark enough curiosity to continue.

To do this, a great first line needs to encompass a lot. It should do one and/or all of the following:
  • Cause an instant, strong emotional reaction
  • Establish the tone of the story that fits genre appropriately
  • Offer a hint at either the theme of the book or at conflict
  • Give an instant connection to the main character
  • Tempt with a promise of an emotional reward (that will come if they continue reading the book)

Here’s the opening line to my latest release, Searching for Home. Let’s see if it hits all of the needed aspects for a first line:
“If her great-great-grandfather hadn’t already died a hundred years ago, Whitney would have killed him.”

Does it pull you in? Make you want to keep reading? I hope so.

Crafting a first line is one of my favorite parts of writing a story. Sometimes it takes me days to come up with the best fit, and honestly, sometimes it changes along the way. Many authors I know are terrified of writing their first line and save it for later or ask for help with the opening.
As a reader, I won’t purchase a book with a weak first line. I figure, if the author didn’t take the time and energy to try to roll out their best at the beginning then I can’t take a chance on the rest.
It’s all a lot of pressure, isn’t it?

But it doesn’t have to be. There are a few easy techniques for crafting a memorable first line.
Shock Them

 “Mother died today.” –The Stranger (Albert Camus)
She died? Oh no. Of what? Why? How old is the main character? Did they like their mother? Did they kill their mother?

In three words Camus gives us endless questions that propels us to keep reading.
They’re out there.” One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Ken Kesey)

WHO is out there? Should we be afraid? Are they friends? In three words We're starting to feel worried. We're looking over our shoulder if we're reading alone. We press on to find out who the “they’re” are.

Twist the Expected
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” –Nineteen Eighty-Four (George Orwell)
I love what Orwell does here. We’re often told that starting with weather is the worst and more boring way to begin a book. Orwell does that and then finishes the sentence with such an unexpected twist that we re-read it three times before moving on. Striking thirteen? I must have read that wrong…nope…it says striking thirteen. In what world is there a thirteen o’clock? We better keep reading…

 Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.” –The Debut (Anita Brookner)
Excuse me while I pick my jaw up off the ground. RUINED by literature? How is that even possible?!? Isn’t this a great twist on the expected? We’re told that reading broadens our mind and makes us more empathetic. How was she ruined by it? I must know.

All children, except one, grow up.” –Peter Pan (J.M. Barrie)
Have you noticed that I’m a fan of short first lines? Look at how much Barrie packed into this one. The entire thrust of Peter Pan is encompassed in six words. If I’d never heard of Peter Pan, I’m going to keep reading because how is this child not growing?

In Action

“The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed." –The Gunslinger (Stephen King)
Should I be afraid for the man in black since he’s being followed? The book is called the Gunslinger so maybe he’s the good guy and the man in black is the bad guy? Why is he being followed? What’s their history? This feels epic already.

"When the car stopped rolling, Parker kicked out the windshield and crawled through onto the wrinkled hood, Glock first.” –Backflash (Richard Stark)
Yikes! I’m both afraid of and immediately awed by Parker. Who is he pointing that Glock at?

First lines can be a lot of fun to write, if you let them be. I keep a journal of first lines that have no story yet to go with them. They’re just interesting openings that haven’t been plotted yet. Perhaps doing that would help you too.

Many pantsers I know leave their opening line until their story is finished. It’s hard to write tone, hint at conflict, and all the other things needed if the writer doesn’t know those things yet.

Remember too, the first line is there to grab the reader—but the story afterwards must live up to the promise of that excellent opening. Without a compelling story, deep characters that the reader cares about, and rich themes all that first line becomes is a sentence that leads to nowhere. And that’s just as bad as a weak opening.
Do you like writing first lines, or hate them? For fun, share the first line of your current manuscript so we can all see more examples. Is there a first line to a story that has stuck with you? Go ahead and share that with us.


Need help crafting the perfect first line? @AuthorKeller shares easy tips to hook your reader #publishing #writing (Click to Tweet)

How important is the first line of your book? @AuthorKeller says its crucial. #publishing #amwriting (Click to Tweet)

Jessica Keller holds degrees in both Communications and Biblical Studies. She is multi-published in both Young Adult Fiction and Inspirational Romance and has 100+ magazine and newspaper articles to her name. She also has a speaking ministry and loves to talk books. Jessica lives in the Midwest with her amazing husband and their very giggly daughter.

Connect with Jessica through her Website, blogFacebook, Amazon Page, and on Twitter.


  1. This is great! For days I’ve been thinking of how to open a short story with the first line. Since it’s a short story I need to pack a lot in the opening. Thank you.

  2. You've got both of my favorite first lines up there - the Gunslinger one, and the Voyage of the Dawn Treader one. Both are so fabulous! So my first line (it's two sentences that go together) is: Amanya gave up her life on her fifth birthday. But first, there were games, and presents.

    I like the first line, and by the end of the first chapter, what it means for "now" is explained, but it continues to resonate throughout the novel.

    1. That's a FANTASTIC first line! If I picked up a book with that, I'd keep reading for sure.

  3. I dread the first line, because it is so important. It's what makes your reader want to keep reading. And with NaNo quickly approaching I'll be writing that first line soon.

  4. First lines are really hard for me. I understand how vital they are, so I end up spending a TON of time on them. This is what I was doing last night. lol.

    After several hours of staring at a blank screen, here's what I came up with. "Hero" will be the character's name, once I figure out what it is.

    ~The crack of rifle fire sent a shot of panic through Hero as he sat in his attorney office. What was happening? ~

    It still isn't good enough for me, I don't know if it matches the tone of the tragic historical Christmas novel I'm writing, so I'll probably end up improving or rewriting it, but at least I have SOMETHING so that I can continue writing from that point. I'm not one of those that can just start writing random scenes. I have to write in sequence.

    Thanks for the tips, this is exactly what I needed right now. :)

    Amber Schamel