Some writers can craft the perfect first line on the very first try—and if that’s happened to you, you can bet the writing muses were in a darn good mood that day. Most writers struggle, returning to the first line of a novel, memoir, story, poem, or personal essay again and again, continuing to rework the opening line even after the rest of the piece is done.
To help inspire you (and give your muse a nudge), here are some examples of first lines from literature (poems, short stories, and novels) that offer great insight into opening line techniques.
Offer a pithy insight. Even people who aren’t book nerds recognize the opening line from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; its wisdom is succinct, cutting, and not quickly forgotten.
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Be “meta.” The opening line from Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn feels bold, brazen, and shocking even to modern readers. Prequel-bait aside, this first line is hilariously self-referential, which might make Mark Twain the father of hipster irony.
You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.
Be coy. In Flannery O’Connor’s chilling story, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” we get an opening line that, frankly, leaves us hanging. Who is “the grandmother”? Why doesn’t she have a name? Why is she being forced to go to Florida?
The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.
Go for the jugular. In his epic long poem, Howl, Allen Ginsberg grabs readers by the throat with this emotional cry and protest.
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical
Lie. Lie so enormously that your lie makes readers suspicious, like Shirley Jackson did when she set an excessively bright, happy, “everything’s perfect here” tone with the first line of her short story “The Lottery.”
The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green…
Unsettle us. George Orwell’s first line of 1984 starts off like a typical opening sentence but ends with an unexpected twist, giving readers a creepy, “I’m missing something here” feeling. (And in a few lines, we also get an even creepier “I’m being watched” feeling too.)
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
Put your characters at odds with one another. The first line of Haruki Murakami’s short story “The Second Bakery Attack” multitasks by not only giving us a bit of friction between characters, but it also has the added bonus of making us go, “Huh?”
I’m still not sure I made the right choice when I told my wife about the bakery attack.
Go for in media res.This term means the author drops the character smack into the middle of a progressing scene—or in the case of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, it just looks like that’s what’s happening. (See what James Thurber’s doing there?)
“We’re going through!” The Commander’s voice was like thin ice breaking.
Cue the peril. In her book Twilight, Stephanie Meyer teases readers with a life-and-death, in-media-res prologue that won’t fully manifest for a few hundred pages.
I’d never given much thought to how I would die—though I’d had reason enough in the last few months—but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.
Be obscure. T.S. Eliot’s first line of The Waste Land is a bit perplexing at first glance; you must keep reading to understand the author’s (seemingly counterintuitive) point. How could April—glorious, warming, colorful April—be cruel?
April is the cruellest month.
Lead with character. In his book Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides pulls us into the plight of his main character with just a few tantalizing, heart-wrenching words.
I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.
Last things first. In David Copperfield, Charlie Dickens doesn’t make us slowly journey alongside of his main character to discover the character’s inner emotional conflict; he gives us a hint of the final showdown right up front.
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.
And One Important Thing To Remember About Your First Line
Your opening line doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it needs to set to tone for the rest of your book, story, or poem. First lines are so important (and fun), there’s an entire publication dedicated to works that start with the same first line.
But don’t put too much pressure on yourself to start out with a great line when you’re just beginning a new project. Sometimes, your first line will be the last one you write!