Killer First Lines

PJ Sharon here, chatting today about “Killer First Lines”. So what constitutes a great first line? Is it action-packed? Does it evoke emotion or imply conflict? Maybe it sets the scene or reveals the tone of your story. Or does an awesome first line combine all of these elements and more in order to grab the reader and compel them to read on? Consider these first lines:

1)      It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. —Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

2)      It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. —George Orwell, 1984 (1949)

3)      I am an invisible man. —Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

4)      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. —Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885)

5)      If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. —J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951)

6)      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. —Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850)

These classic first lines might seem antiquated in terms of today’s genre fiction standards and rules, but they remain powerful examples of compelling prose. They say something about the author, expressing their unique voice, and setting the tone for what’s to come. They inherently ask a story question and open the eyes of the reader to a new world in which the author’s imagination comes to life on the page.

I spend a good deal of time contemplating first lines. I want my first line to pose a question to the reader—a question that compels them to read on and keep turning pages until that question is ultimately answered at the end of the story. In my current WIP, PIECES OF LOVE, the first line is, I’ve heard it said that it takes twenty-one days to make or break a habit. Hopefully that makes you wonder what habit our teen character must break. Maybe you’re asking what good habit she would like to adopt, and why she would be concerned about making or breaking a habit in the first place.

Here are a few more first lines. These are from more recent books and by authors some of you will recognize. Analyze each of them, not for what they say, but for what they tell you about the author and the story.

1)      The day Honor Grace Holland turned thirty-five, she did what she always did on her birthday. She got a pap smear. Kristan Higgins, The Perfect Match, 2013

2)      My fingers drum into the desktop, beating out the rhythm of my hammering thoughts. TL Costa, Playing Tyler, 2013

3)      The Garretts were forbidden from the start. Huntley Fitzpatrick, My Life Next Door, 2012.

4)     He lifted the limp body out of the trunk, wrapped the girl in a woolen blanket, and tossed her like a rag doll over his shoulder. PJ Sharon, Savage Cinderella, 2012

5)      I’m a liar. I know it. I hate it. And I can’t seem to help myself. PJ Sharon, On Thin Ice, 2011.

Yes, I realize those last two are mine, but they are, nonetheless, decent examples of first lines that hopefully compel readers to read on. Notice the tone in each of the above first lines. With Kristan Higgins books, you know you’re in for some laughs and you can bet that every reader who read that first line had an instant smile plastered on their face. TL Costa’s book, PLAYING TYLER, puts you squarely into the mind of a teenage boy with ADHD. You can hear the noise in his head as he struggles to find focus. And in Huntley Fitzpatrick’s contemporary YA romance, you can feel that you are in for heartache and conflict based on this enticing first line that immediately makes you want to know the Garretts.

Savage Cinderella FINAL 200x300

The opening line of SAVAGE CINDERELLA gives you a chilling look into the calculated actions of a serial killer and makes you instantly care for that little girl and wonder what happens to her next.

And in ON THIN ICE, teen readers are faced with a mirror into their own lives. What teenager can’t relate to the ever-tempting desire to lie?

on thin ice front cover jpg

Look at books you love. Analyze them for how that first line makes you feel. Does it propel the story forward? Does it grab you and pose a question that you have to know the answer to? In my opinion, as long as the first line makes the reader a) think, b) care about the story/character, and c) read on, the author has done their job.

Have you written any fabulous first lines you’d like to share? Can you think of any books you’ve read that had a killer first line?

25 thoughts on “Killer First Lines”

  1. This is great, Paula! I actually dedicate a section on opening lines when I go into libraries and talk to teens about writing. I have kids pull random books off the shelf, read the first line out loud and we talk about whether or not the line pulls the readers into the story.

    This is great, and I definitely want to know what habit your character is talking about!

    1. Brilliant as you are lovely, my dear! Great exercise to do with the kids in my public library group.

      Here’s the blurb for PIECES OF LOVE:
      Sixteen year-old Alexis Hartman wants nothing more than to smoke pot and play guitar. What’s the point in planning for the future? Her world is shattered by her sister’s alcohol overdose at college, and when Lexi is arrested for possession a second time, life couldn’t get any more complicated. Her mother’s breakdown is the final straw that forces Lexi to spend the summer with her grandmother in Malibu. Her ‘Malibu Barbie’ grandmother, Maddie, decides that a change of scenery is called for—a Mediterranean cruise . . . for seniors.

      Eighteen year-old Ethan Kaswell, the poster child for good sons, is stranded on the cruise when his famous heart surgeon father is kept away by an important consultation. Ethan’s used to being on his own but he finds Lexi irresistible. Although he’s smart enough to see that there is no future in falling for a “vacation crush,” Lexi’s edgy dark side and soulfully sad eyes draw him like an anchor to the bottom of the sea. As she spirals downward out of control, will she bring him down too, or was he already drowning? Maybe by saving her, he can save himself.

      I’m getting ready to send out queries on this , as i think it fits the contemporary YA market well and it seems like the right time for me to take that direction. We’ll see what happens.

  2. Some great opening lines! And now I really, really want to read Savage Cinderella…

    My favorite opener out of my own books is from my contemporary YA Nail Polish and Feathers:
    For a minute there, I believed I would actually make it out of school without incident.

  3. I did a whole presentation on first lines. Or should I say, the First Paragraph. Every time, people loved it. I showed first lines by a first time author, and I showed the first line by well known authors in their first book and in subsequent books. Lots of analysis in that presentation.

    Here’s my favorite: Mommy forgot to warn the babysitter about the basement. – The Summoning by Kelley Armstrong.

    1. Yikes! Excellent first line!

      I also love to see the comparisons as you mentioned. What a great approach for a presentation. I bet it really helps you see the evolution of the writing process. Thanks for stopping in, Carole!

  4. Love working on those first lines – and that Savage Cinderella line is great!
    Here’s the opener from the urban fantasy I’m releasing next week:
    “It’s just as well I’m not claustrophobic, but even so, being held captive in a bottle was not how I’d planned to spend my weekend. ”
    What do you think?

  5. Good examples and a great reminder to set that first hook. Thank you!

    My favorite first line from my historical romances: Doeg’s requirements in a prospective wife seemed simple enough when he started the search. – from Redeemed by Jill Hughey

  6. Paula, this is another one of your filled-with-information posts. It takes time to find the opening line. You could write the whole book and then do the opening line. This is mine for now: “The animated chatter stopped and all eyes turned to Leila.” What do you think?

    1. It does raise questions about what comes next! Good job, Gail. i believe you write women’s fiction, right? You could even add some punch to it by being more vivid or specific. ie: The din in the crowded ballroom stopped, and all eyes turned to Leila.

      Whenever you can, use specific detail to set the scene or use a power word/vivid description to catch the readers eye. I go over and over my first lines until they scream for a reader to continue. And yes, sometimes I end up writing the first line after the book is finished. All the really cool stuff happens during revisions:-)

      Good luck with your writing!

  7. I love first lines. They’re so important to hooking the reader. I have a first line of mine that I love. I’ll be releasing the book that goes with the first line next year. It’s from a paranormal suspense:

    If she’d been a bad girl when she had the chance, she probably wouldn’t be dying right now.

  8. Great first lines, P.J. What I hate is when you read a fantastic first line or several great first pages only to have the rest of the book be blah. It’s like they only worked hard on the beginning and forgot about the rest.

    1. Totally agree, Donna! I call those books,”contest ready” books. The first three chapters could be great, and then it all falls apart. So disappointing. The hardest part of writing for me is getting through the sagging middle and keeping the pacing just right until the end. i also feel like the last line in a book is as important to get right as the first and twice as hard! I re-write my last lines a dozen times before I’m satisfied. Thanks for chiming in!

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