How do you write a great first line?

People agonize over their first sentence, and we’re about to beg you not to. At least, not until you’ve finished the entire piece. After all, how can you be sure what the story is about until you’ve written it in its entirety?

Anyway, a great first line is completely subjective, and the standards for a great first line will vary from genre to genre, and for fiction and nonfiction. A few rules of thumb (that are constantly and effectively broken):

  1. Don’t start with dialogue.
  2. Don’t start with the weather.
  3. Introduce your main character within the first few sentences.
  4. Don’t start with a complicated metaphor.
  5. Don’t start by insulting the reader (e.g., their intelligence, their choice of reading, their personal hygiene).
  6. Give the main character a goal/something he or she wants straight away.
  7. Don’t start with onomatopoeia.
  8. Don’t start with an enormous first sentence.
  9. Begin with some kind of action.
  10. If you’re writing fiction, don’t start with a question.

Yes, if you’re an established writer, you can definitely get away with ignoring these rules, but if you’re just starting out, it may be best to steer clear of these sorts of beginnings.

Instead, try thinking of your first sentence like this:

The object of your first sentence is not to entice your audience into reading the entire book. The object is to make them want to read the next sentence, just as it’s the job of the second sentence to make them want to read the third, and so on.

Think of the sentences that make up your story as train cars, connected to each other, racing forward on the track of your plot. The audience watching this train pass will see each sentence as part of a whole, moving in one direction, with every sentence pulling the sentences after it and clamped tightly to the ones before.

The first sentence is the steam engine and it’s pretty important, but in reality, it’s only special because its the first. There’s no point in it moving at all unless the cars after it have cargo worth carrying, and there’s no point to the entire train if the track leads nowhere. Each component of a train is important, just like each sentence of your story, each character, each plot, each setting is important.

We think the easiest way to experiment with first lines is to do some research. Pull a few books off of your bookshelf and read the first few lines. Make a note of what you like and don’t like. We’ve begun a new segment called First Lines to help you out.

Things we think are important to remember for the first few sentences of your story:

  1. Get the reader to start asking questions. Don’t give all your information at once; rather, make you audience read on to have their questions answered. Just don’t make them wait too long for every answer or they may lose interest.
  2. We agree that characters must have goals. If you introduce a character in your first few lines, they need to want something or the reader won’t care.
  3. Make your reader feel like they are entering a story in-progress. That is to say, they are aware from the first few lines that the story has a definite, believable past, and they’re coming in right as the most interesting part of this ongoing story is beginning.
  4. We agree with beginning with action is likely best. Exposition can weigh down the story’s start. Move the reader by writing movement.
  5. Be mindful of the second sentence. The first sentence should lead into the next, or else fill the reader with so many questions that they have to read on to get their answers (see above).

If you’re doing these things, or at least making an effort to do them, you’ll have a strong first line, guaranteed.

Further reading on beginning a story:

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