Updated May 2023
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. At Writer’s Relief, we’ve worked with hundreds of authors, and we know most writers return to the first line of their 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!
Once you’ve completed your masterpiece (and your first line), it’s time to submit your work to literary agents and journal editors. The research experts at Writer’s Relief can help you target the very best markets for your work and boost your odds of getting published! With over twenty-nine years of experience, we can pinpoint where you should—and where you shouldn’t—submit your work. Learn more about our services and submit your writing sample to our Review Board today!
QUESTION: What’s the first line of your work-in-progress? Post it in our comments section.
My first line: The sickening sound of bones cracking as Sarwa’a hit the wall galvanized Hikala’a into action.
CC: Melodious, flowery, adverbial and adjective fluff. Feels cliche, too. (“sickening sound of bones cracking”? ya-da, ya-da) What bones (or at least, what body part(s))? What did Hikala’a STOP doing in order to get “into action”?
“The crack of Sarwa’a’s arm breaking against the wall shook Hikala’a out of his numbaqua.” (You can define whether that’s “indecision about an action” or “state of focusing on something that’s been said to the exclusion of all other awareness” or what have you a few paragraphs later)
My intro “I like cows because of their color pattern… and other reasons!” – thoughts?
Suzanne tossed the bloodied knife into the sink, not bothering to wash it off.
Whoever came up with that ‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’ line was full of it!
Hi, I am writing for the first time and is my first sentence any good?
First Line: It was a hot October Sunday, and the Carpenters were sitting around, having nothing to do. The Carpenter household was like any other on Pearl Street, boring and bland. But they thought that somehow they are at the center of attention.
Any suggestions? Leave ANY comments:
Some really great examples here – I can never make up my mind as to whether the greatest-of-all-time is 1984 or Anna Karenina. Both perfect and beautiful, though so different. Thank you so much for giving these examples alongside tangible advice for how and why to make them work in your own writing, really well done 🙂
My first line, “They tried to pin a murder one me, little old me who couldn’t swat a fly. Not sober anyway”. My book was called Bedlam. Never got published. Never mind, tomorrow is another day.
Great examples, my favourite from your article has to be 1984, it certainly makes you sit up and pay attention. Middlesex is a close second, a great book, really moving. Another that stands out for me is from The Secret History by Donna Tartt, “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.” It throws you in at the deep end and then lets you slowly find out what happened to Bunny over the next few hundred pages!
“Hey girl throw me some beads. Throw me some beads for my horse too.”
First line to my book.
I’m writing my first novel and so excited. My first line, please be brutally honest.
“He was bored, the ragee coursing through his veins, he was ready.”
Tell me what you think. You’re the first I’ve ever asked.
My first line: My mother used to say that only wild girls grew beautifully.
Does it sound too… farfetched, like I’m trying to present an idea, but only giving half of the information?
The first paragraph of my far-future science fiction novel:
“The Civilization appeared very briefly in the avatar of an Late Archaic Human female, clad in a severely cut gray dress with black button-up shoes, gray hair tightly done up in a bun, and a pair of lenses attached to wire precariously perched on her nose. And then she vanished as swiftly as she had appeared.”
Dix insists that the severed fingers started it, but it’s who I am, and who Dix is, that got us in so deep and nearly killed us in the process.
I’d love to hear anyone’s thoughts on the first sentence of my mystery novel. “Although I was thoroughly shaken by the note, all sticky-taped to my bedroom window, in red ink and all, my wonder is how someone could’ve gotten it there when our house is halfway off a cliff?”
Line. Adriana awoke hearing the sound of her alarm clock ringing and the phone, in unison! She was grumpy before coffee and really didn’t want to answer her phone just yet.
Sorry this is 3 years too late but would hate to learn that you were discouraged from continuing your writing based on the comments from Wendy She clearly knows little about language. “Adverbial and adjective fluff” is objectively wrong. There is not one adverb in your opening sentence, for instance. And there is no need to specify which bones were broken nor what Hikala’a was doing. Your opening is fine and will move a reader to read on. Wendy seems to be a bit full of herself and doesn’t know the parts of speech. Good luck, CC! Don’t ever let anyone stop you from writing.