Novels with famous first lines. You’ve seen them, even read some of them, or pored over their opening pages. Famous first lines you can repeat from memory.
Ursula Le Guin says in her essay, The Fisherwoman’s Daughter, that:
First sentences are doors to worlds.
She’s right. A great first sentence can hook the reader and reel them in.
Of course, you can’t build the success or fate of a novel on a first sentence alone. If you have a great first sentence or first paragraph, and the writing that follows doesn’t live up to its promise, the reader will bail.
In another blog post, I’ll deal with the conversion sequence that starts with the cover art and that moves through to the opening of the book.
But to summarise, there’s a sequence of hooks that are meant to draw a reader in. The cover image might help a book stand out in a bookshop against the competition. The cover can be seen from across a store. You can’t see a blurb from that far, and you won’t get anywhere near the opening lines until you are tempted to pick the book up in the first place.
The power of the opening sentence hook comes at the end of a sequence of hooks that lead up to it.
Getting a potential reader or book buyer to check out the book in the first place is a challenge. The book market is already saturated and it’s easy to get depressed when you walk into a large bookshop and check out the sheer wealth of competition.
You need all the help you can get – which is why great and genre-appropriate cover art is so important.
A decent blurb is also important.
But readers browse the opening pages of far more books than they’ll ever buy or read. They are engaging in a filtering process – filtering out what doesn’t appeal fast as they search for something that hooks their attention, and makes them curious to read more.
That’s why the opening lines and pages of your book matter.
Your opening lines need to draw a reader in. They can do this in different ways. Sometimes it’s dropping the reader straight into some action – there are Hollywood films that also use this type of hook.
There are also opening lines that raise a question in the reader’s mind – leading to a curiosity to find the answer(s). Some opening lines cast a spell over the reader, urging them to read on.
One of the things readers remember most about a book is how it made them feel. They won’t necessarily remember all the plot details years down the line, but they will likely remember the impact a book had on them, the mood of the book, its atmosphere, and how it made them feel.
Sometimes this is also related to the writer’s voice, and voice is something that can show up in the very first line.
In a 2013 interview with The Atlantic, Stephen King was asked about his favourite lines, and they turned out to be his opening lines. According to King:
An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.
Among his own books, his favourite opening line is from Needful Things. Four simple words printed in 20-point on a page: You’ve been here before. King sees this as an invitation to keep reading and that it suggests a familiar story.
King works on his openings while he lies in bed before going to sleep. He composes them in his head and will rework them over the coming days, weeks, and even years. Once he’s happy with the opening, he knows he can write the book.
There are many famous opening lines in fiction:
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.
Daphne du Maurier – Rebecca
The opening sentence of Rebecca is a particularly famous example. Perhaps one of the most famous – in part thanks to the Hitchcock adaptation where Joan Fontaine narrates the opening sentences of the novel.
But many people know it from the book alone. It’s a line that throws up questions in the mind of a new reader. Who is the narrator – we never find out her true name. She is simply the second Mrs. de Winter. And what is Manderley?
The sentences that follow the first line fill in some of the details. Rebecca opens on a mystery – the mystery of Manderley, abandoned, ruined, and overgrown, and why the narrator can never go back.
Here’s another famous example:
The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.
LP Hartley – The Go-Between
The Go-Between is a classic English novel set against the backdrop of the end of the Victorian era. Specifically, the summer of 1900. It is a novel in which an older man is reflecting on the time he spent as a young boy at a school friend’s estate – a period he has blanked out from his memory until he finds his old diary and pieces things together.
In an interview Hartley said:
I wanted to evoke the feeling of that summer [in 1900], the long stretch of fine weather, and also the confidence in life, the belief that all’s well with the world, which everyone seemed to enjoy before the First World War…
The first line of the book links to the changes the character has seen in the world since 1900. He’s remembering the past from the 1950s. Two world wars have passed, with what in 1900 would have been unimaginable casualties and horrors. The aristocratic late Victorian society that young Leo samples in his visit to the estate has long passed away. The past is indeed a foreign country and things were different then.
Speaking of long summers in 1900, there is also Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, which I wrote about in another blog post. Here is the opening sentence:
Everyone agreed that the day was just right for the picnic to Hanging Rock – a shimmering summer morning warm and still, with cicadas shrilling all through breakfast from the loquat trees outside the dining-room windows and bees murmuring above the pansies bordering the drive.
Lindsay wrote the novel after a series of dreams about a picnic at the Rock. She wrote it in winter, but when she woke from the dreams she could still feel the summer heat. The novel’s opening sentences capture the mood and season of the dreams. But the central event of the novel, the picnic at Hanging Rock, is also referenced from the very first line.
Staying on the theme of summer there is this opening line:
It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.
Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar
In a few short words, the novel’s opening sets the season, the talking point of the time (the Rosenbergs, which also anchors the opening in a particular year), and the location.
Or how about the opening to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History:
The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.
The opening line of the prologue gets to the heart of the story, yet a new reader will only have questions rather than answers at this point. Who is Bunny? Why is he dead? And why does the narrator mean by the gravity of our situation?
Of course, if you’ve read the book, you’ll know the answer. The first half of the novel leads up to the events that cause Bunny’s death. The second half deals with the fallout. The opening sentence doesn’t deal with the lead-up to the death – but it shows that there will likely be consequences. And that the novel deals with this in some way.
The opening of 1984 immediately indicates that there is something not quite right about the society in this book. The clocks are striking thirteen. This famous novel deals with a dystopian society and acts as a political warning.
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
George Orwell – 1984
Zora Neale Hurston was part of the Harlem Renaissance but she never really got the recognition she deserved during her lifetime. Her fame really came after her death. The opening line of her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is a standout line. It’s more than just an opening hook that draws the reader into her story. It’s a handy saying too.
Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.
Zora Neale Hurston – Their Eyes Were Watching God
William Gibson’s Neuromancer has a particularly striking image in the opening sentence:
The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.
Meanwhile, the opening sentence to JG Ballard’s High-Rise raises all sorts of questions in the reader’s mind:
Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.
The opening of Andy Weir’s The Martian gets straight to the seriousness of the narrator’s situation:
I’m pretty much fucked.
And he is. Well and truly. The rest of the novel follows him as he figures out how to survive on Mars when the rest of his crew have left him for dead. Nobody on Earth or even his old crew know yet that he is still alive. So, help isn’t arriving anytime soon.
Or how about Iain Banks’ unforgettable first line in his contemporary Scots novel, The Crow Road:
It was the day my grandmother exploded.
Apart from the unexpected image, there are all sorts of questions like why and how she exploded.
The novel isn’t actually about the whys of her eventful cremation, but the mystery of why the narrator’s Uncle Rory went missing. This is woven around a story about family and growing up.
But that first line is a hook that gets the reader to read on. Hooks that raise questions in the reader’s mind can be answered early in the book providing there are bigger questions being raised that pull the reader on to finish the story.
Earlier in this post, I mentioned Stephen King’s approach to first lines – he really tries to nail the first line before tackling the rest of the book. However, if you spend too much time trying to nail that first line, you can lose your confidence and motivation when it comes to the rest of the book.
It’s far more important to get your early drafts down so that you have a story to work with, and characters to flesh out.
It’s not unusual for writers to start the earlier drafts of their novel with a different scene or at a different stage in the narrative. And this is perfectly fine. A lot of writers need some warmup prose to get them into their story. Much of this can be discarded later.
Once you have at least one full draft down, you can start to think about the right starting point. But even that isn’t about exactly the right first line.
You can actually leave your opening line or lines until the very end of your writing process. During the earlier drafts and rewrites, you can note down ideas for opening lines. But this fine-tuning of the opening can be something you can postpone until later.
After all, you don’t want to waste your burst of enthusiasm for your story on working and reworking the same lines over and over. Plunge into your story. Worry about the details later.
You might be someone who often has a good first line in mind – if so, that’s great. But it’s not necessary when you’re first sitting down to write. Especially if you want a line that will really hook the reader.
Of course, it’s not just your opening line that matters, but your opening paragraphs, pages, chapters etc.
If you want feedback on your opening chapters, I offer an opening chapters developmental edit. The relevant service page mentions 15,000 words, but I also do custom word counts for those who want a shorter opening assessed.
The edit looks at opening hooks, characterisation, point of view, and much more. You get an editorial letter and a copy of your manuscript with track commenting in the margins.