“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” (The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien)
“Now, for those of you who know anything about blind children, you are aware that they make the very best thieves.” (Peter Nimble and his Fantastic Eyes, Jonathan Auxier)
“There was once a time when only God knew the day you’d die.” (A Time to Die, Nadine Brandes)
“Claudia knew that she could never pull off the old-fashioned kind of running away.” (From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, E. L. Koningsburg)
“Because he had once been human, the King Under Stone sometimes found himself plagued by human emotions.” (Princess of the Midnight Ball, Jessica Day George)
“If I had to do it all over again, I would not have chosen this life. Then again, I’m not sure I ever had a choice.” (The False Prince, Jennifer A. Nielsen)
What do all of these sentences have in common? They are the first line of a book.
And the first line of a book is so important.
If you spend any amount of time learning about the writing craft, you’ll doubtlessly come across something about writing “the hook”. “The hook” refers to the first line in a novel.
First impressions matter. And the first line in a novel is the first impression for that book. And that is why it is so important. Readers should be hooked after the first line. Your first line has to be killer.
Now, there are many ways to structure a first line. They can start with action, dialogue, a thought, or a statement. Some are long, and some are short. But it has to do one thing.
The first line has to create a question in the reader’s mind. It needs to spark intrigue. That question will cause them to keep reading in search of an answer. And while they learn the answer to the first question, you raise more questions in their mind to keep them reading.
Now, the question can be a literal question, but more often than not, it is an implicit question.
“On television crime shows, they never tell you how cold it is.” (The Girl Who Could See, Kara Swanson)
Question: How cold what is?
“For a long time after that summer, the four Penderwick sisters still talked of Arundel.” (The Penderwicks, Jeanne Birdsall)
Question: What is Arundel? Why are they still talking about it?
“I wasn’t ready to turn to stone.” (Fawkes, Nadine Brandes)
Question: How do you turn to stone? Why are you turning to stone?
First lines also can help to set the tone for not only the first scene, but the entire novel itself.
“If you asked the kids and the teachers at Lincoln Elementary School to make three lists–all the really bad kids, all the really smart kids, and all the really good kids–Nick Allen would not be on any of them. Nick deserved a list all to his own, and everyone knew it.” (Frindle, Andrew Clements)
These opening lines give us a clear tone. This is going to be a fun story dealing with a school and an exceptional student.
Lastly, your first line should also introduce a character. This is normally the main character, since it helps make the connection between the character and the readers quicker, but it doesn’t have to be. Most of the examples I’ve given so far start with the main character, but not all of them do.
Tell me, what are some of your favorite first lines? Do you like writing first lines?