How to Write a Great First Line

The first line of a story has a major job—to catch the attention of the reader. The right reader. As a writer it is, arguably, the most important line we write. So how do we write a great first line?

once upon a time handwritten on a piece of paper can be a great first line if you've written a fable or fairy tale

The Job of the First Line

If the job of the first line of a story is to catch a reader’s attention, then all it has to do is shock or be surprising, right? Well, that may work for some stories and some readers. But it’s not the only way, and it’s not necessarily the right way for the story you write today.

The most important job of the first line is to hook the reader, but it’s not the only job of the first line. The best first lines also introduce a writing style, a mood, a theme, and hints at conflict to come. Now, not all of us can write the perfect first line. But we can learn techniques that will give us a great first line.

No One Right Way

I’ve said it repeatedly. Every writer must find what works for them. The biggest shocker is that one way won’t work for every story written by the same writer.

Great first lines can reflect the story’s theme. It can reflect an odd or unique detail of the world. Establishing your character’s voice is another powerful way to create a great first line. Convey the stakes with your opening line and you’ll hook readers. Or you can use sensory details and the setting to establish mood and foreshadow what the story will be about.

The one thing that’s sort of consistent is that the first line must convey your writing style. Are your sentences short and choppy or full and flowery? That first sentence will let the reader decide, is this a style I can spend hours reading?

How Do You Learn?

Collect them. Collect first lines of novels and short stories in your genre. Good ones, bad ones, even mediocre ones will help you.

Analyze them. What’s your gut reaction? Are you interested or not? Is it—meh?

Don’t ignore the bad or the meh. Take them apart. Why does it give you that feeling?

Is it dialog? Go a step further. Is it internal dialog or with another character? What’s the dialog. Is it a confrontation, an expression of love or desire, or something else?

Perhaps it’s a unique voice or style of writing. Again, what is it expressing? How do you feel about the character or setting? What do you expect will happen next?

Is it heavy on description? What mood does it convey? Does it convey a theme? Why would the author of this story choose this location?

Perhaps it’s an action beat. What action? Why is the action important?

Don’t neglect popular stories outside of your genre. You never know when one might spark an idea that would make your first line great. Don’t know where to start? Here’s a list of 100 best first lines. Or check out the ones on my First Line Fridays posts.

How I Wrote a First Line

cover of My Soul to Keep by Lynette M Burrows from which the first line is taken

The giant bronze angel of death loomed over Miranda Clarke’s shoulder.

My Soul to Keep by Lynette M. Burrows

How did I choose that as the first line of My Soul to Keep?

I wanted to convey a location, an action, and a situation that firmly created the world in my reader’s mind. But how? The story world had so many elements of the real world it could confuse my reader.

I kept asking myself, how is this world different? What symbols would there be? How would their daily life be different? If I were one of the elite, my life would be one of luxury. Why would I want to run away from that?

I tried dialog. I tried an ‘every day’ scene. And I tried several settings. I also tried many symbolic representations of the society.

My story is a dark dystopian alternate history. The symbolism of the statue, this particular statue, looming over Miranda conveys theme, potential conflict, and the society. And the first paragraph, and subsequent paragraphs, build on the theme and conflict and society.

Does my first line appeal to every reader? No, of course not. You don’t want a first line that appeals to every reader. Your first line should entice YOUR readers to keep reading.

You Can Write a Great First Line

First, thanks to reader Jan G for giving me the push to write this post sooner rather than later. Second, know that you can do this.

Usually, a great first line doesn’t come in the first or second draft. Often the writer writes and rewrites the first line many, many times. Stephen King rewrites his first lines for months, sometimes years.

There are lots of good first lines out there. And there are many great first lines out there. How can you write a great first line? Scribble some bad first lines. Write many good first lines and you’ll find a great first line. Write a great first line and let your readers decide if you penned the perfect first line.

2 thoughts on “How to Write a Great First Line

    1. You’re welcome, Jan. Thanks for asking about my other books. You can see the first lines in the sneak peeks I’ve shared on this blog. In the right hand column, near the top is a link for sneak peeks. Check them out.

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