Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Can Your Writing Pass the Holly (Jolly) Test?

by PeggySue Wells @PeggySueWells

Can your writing pass the Holly test? Can mine?

As a young adult, one of my daughters was particularly picky about reading material. If the first line of a book captured her attention, she read the first paragraph. If the first paragraph was worth her time, she continued through the first chapter. When a first chapter was compelling, she read the book. For the books that held her interest, she sought other titles by the same author.

Holly’s opinions proved particularly helpful for our writers group. We could run our first lines past her discerning eye. Though Holly has grown and moved on to a career and family of her own, our writers group continues to use her criteria to help one another write well.

Does the first line of your writing capture the reader enough so the reader continues to read the first paragraph?

Once a project is complete, many authors return to the first line. Do these words grab the reader’s attention? Create curiosity? Compel the reader to read more?

Some interest-grabbing first lines include:

The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world.
Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson

The crowd was small for a hanging. 
Journey to Riverbend by Henry Mclaughlin

“Where's Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table
for breakfast. 
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. 
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

Call me Ishmael. 
Moby Dick by Herman Melville

In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.
A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

You wouldn’t think we’d have to leave Chicago to see a dead body. 
A Long Way For Chicago by Richard Peck

The drought had lasted now for ten million years, and the reign of the terrible lizards had
long since ended.
2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke

You better not never tell nobody but God. 
The Color Purple by Alice Walker

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
1984 by George Orwell

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen.
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

It was a pleasure to burn. 
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. 
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it.
The Princess Bride by William Goldman

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.
Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way. 
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

All children, except one, grow up.
Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

The year 1866 was signalized by a remarkable incident, a mysterious and inexplicable phenomenon, which doubtless no one has yet forgotten. 
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea by Jules Verne

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York. 
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. 
Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis

Tuesday was a fine California day, full of sunshine and promise, until Harry Lyon had to shoot someone at lunch. 
Dragon Tears by Dean Koontz

Once a piece is complete, many authors return to the beginning. Does the first line compel the reader to continue through the first paragraph?

Of course, having learned this principle along the way, I considered my own first lines. How did I do in my books? Would these pass the Holly test? Would you keep reading? 
  • Captain Michael Northington looked toward the patient’s room. Chasing Sunrise
  • Shanghai. He hated the place. The Patent
  • His box was being pried open. Secrecy Order
  • Mallory Wayne chambered a round in her Sig Sauer and holstered the gun inside her jacket. Unnatural Cause
  • “Here they come!” Homeless for the Holidays
  • On the day I was born, France was free. The Girl Who Wore Freedom
  • “He’s gone.” The Ten Best Decisions A Single Mom Can Make
  • Glancing at the time, Larkin Hammond knew she would land in plenty of time to sweep her husband away from the office to their surprise date. A Baby in the Barn
  • Trina Troyer perched on the stool at the Troyer Elevator check-out counter. Tea for Two
  • What do I do now? Not Just Once A Year
  • Moving into the fifth month of pregnancy, I was awaiting the butterfly kicks I should feel any day. When A Baby Dies

Now take a look at your completed manuscripts. Would you keep reading based on the first line? Does your first line pass the Holly test? Compel readers to keep going? 

  • Your first line prompts the reader to read the first paragraph.
  • The first paragraph invites the reader to read the first chapter.
  • The first chapter gets the reader to read the book.
  • The last chapter sells your next book.

Before you publish, double-check the first sentence to see if the beginning elicits curiosity to see what happens next. If you wonder, post your first line to your audience and ask for their opinion. Readers, like Holly, can be counted on to give valuable feedback.

What is your favorite opening line in a book?


Tropical island votary and history buff, PeggySue Wells parasails, skydives, snorkels, scuba dives, and has taken (but not passed) pilot training. Writing from the 100-Acre Wood in Indiana, Wells is the bestselling author of thirty books including The Slave Across the Street, Slavery in the Land of the Free, Bonding With Your Child Through Boundaries, Homeless for the Holidays, Chasing Sunrise, and The Ten Best Decisions A Single Mom Can Make. Founder of SingleMomCircle.com, PeggySue is named for the Buddy Holly song with the great drumbeat. At school author visits, she teaches students the secrets to writing and speaks at events and conferences. Connect with her at www.PeggySueWells.com, on Facebook at PeggySue Wells, and LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/peggysuewells


  1. Thank you for checking out today's blog.

  2. I love the opening of Pride and Prejudice. Not only is it funny, it perfectly sets the stage for the book. It is also infinitely quotable in other situations: "It is a truth universally acknowledged ... [fill in the blanks]).

    1. Yes, so well penned that we quote, and modify as appropriate, that stellar opening line today.

  3. I've always love Dickens' long run-on sentence starter to "A Tale of Two Cities," and its amazing how Jane Austen sets the entire stage of "Pride and Prejudice" in one sentence! As for your openers, I may have to grab "Tea for Two" this month as a holiday treat for myself. ;)
    Thanks for giving me something to think about PeggySue.

    1. Chris, you bring up another important notice that writing has trends as much as hair and clothing styles. The long, carefully worded openings popular with Dickens and Jane Austen—and still quoted—were the style of their day. Today's writing style is shorter sentences. Not good or bad, just different styles for different times.
      I hope you do read Tea For Two, the second stand-alone short story from the Old Traction Barn. The third just released in Frayed: Held Together By Hope, the first story is in Christmas From the Heart: A Collection of Christian Romances. From California, I didn't know what an Elevator was, besides the device that moves us from floor to floor in a building, until I moved the the Midwest and needed feed for our horses. In California, we purchased from the Ice and Fuel which must sound as goofy to Midwesterners as Elevator to those folks from the West Coast :)

  4. I write personal essays. When I complete my essay, I return to the opening sentence, and what I thought was the best I could do I find myself rearranging, chopping, discarding, and starting that sentence over. I always believe I can do better.

    1. I think returning to the opening sentence when a project is complete is wisdom. I've learned to give the opening my best effort without the struggle, knowing I will return to that pivotal sentence when the piece is complete to polish and rework with the knowledge of how the whole work has come together. Writing essays is a particular skill.

  5. The above comment anonymous is actually me, Art Fahy. I do not know why my name did not come up. Thank you.

  6. Thanks for including my opening line among so many great authors.

    1. I use your opening line often when talking / teaching writing, Henry McLaughlin. So thankful our paths crossed and for the kind words you've said when endorsing my books.