14th March 2020
7 Top Tips for Nailing the First Line of Your Novel
The first line of a novel is key to grabbing readers’ attention and convincing them to read the rest of the story. But how do you write a great first line? Here is our list of seven top tips to help you write a great opening for your novel.
1. Use Vivid Language to Set the Tone
You can use vivid language to set the mood and tone of your novel from the opening line. For instance, take the following line from Neuromancer:
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
William Gibson uses an evocative simile here to describe the scene, making it easier to imagine. By doing this, he lets the reader know what to expect from the story and makes the fictional world seem more alive.
2. Surprise the Reader
One way to hook the reader is to subvert their expectations. For example, George Orwell begins his famous dystopian novel 1984 with the following:
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
The idea of the clocks striking thirteen – as compared to the usual maximum of twelve – makes the reader pause and pay attention. It instantly tells us that the novel’s world is different from our own. And we therefore want to read on to find out what is happening and what makes the world of the story unique.
3. Introduce a Memorable Character
Characters don’t need to be extraordinary or likeable, but they should leave a lasting impression. As such, many writers use the first line of their novel to introduce a memorable character. The famous first line of Rafael Sabatini’s Scaramouche, for instance, reads as follows:
He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.
This line refers to the novel’s protagonist, Andre-Louis Moreau. And while it does not tell us much about him (e.g., what he does or what he looks like), it gives us a sense of his personality and makes us want to know more.
4. Introduce a Unique Voice
A strong narrative voice is instantly identifiable, difficult to mimic, and lures the reader into a story. The voice can belong to the narrator or characters. A classic example of this is Alice Walker’s The Color Purple:
“You better not never tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy.”
Here, we hear Celie (the novel’s narrator) quoting her abusive father. The dialect English evokes the time and place in which the story is set, as well as telling us about the character’s situation. We therefore get a strong sense of the narrative voice from the moment we start reading.
5. Use a Short, Punchy Sentence
A short, punchy opening line can be very memorable. Examples include:
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Call me Ishmael. —Herman Melville, Moby Dick
I am an invisible man. — Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
It began as a mistake. – Charles Bukowski, Post Office.
The key to a short opening line is to draw the reader in. A short sentence is easy to read, so it won’t intimidate the reader. But it should also leave them with a question they want to answer, making them read on!
6. Introduce a Theme
You can use the first line of your novel to set out its theme. This will guide the reader’s understanding of the characters and events to follow. For instance:
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Here, we see the first line of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Family is a major theme in this novel, and the opening line sets this up neatly.
7. Kickstart the Plot with Action
If you prefer to jump straight into the action, you can use your opening lines set up the plot. The idea is to hook the reader so they want to know where the story leads. For example, Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis begins:
One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.
Rather than set up Gregor’s situation before his transformation, Kafka introduces it in the first sentence. This places the reader in the same confusing position as Gregor, unsure what to expect as the story unfolds.
Summary: 7 Top Tips for Nailing the First Line of Your Novel
We hope this list of ideas and examples has inspired you! As a reminder, to write a great first line for your novel you can:
- Use vivid language to set the scene, mood and tone of the novel.
- Say something surprising to grab the reader’s attention.
- Introduce a character that the reader will want to know more about.
- Introduce a unique narrative voice that sets your writing style apart.
- Use a punchy sentence that leaves the reader wanting to know more.
- Introduce a theme that will be important to the novel as whole.
- Kickstart the plot with action, getting the story moving straight away.
And when you’re done drafting, don’t forget to have your novel proofread. Proofed has expert editors with experience in all sorts of creative writing, including novels, short stories, screenplays and poetry. As such, we can help you put the final polish on your masterpiece.
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