Start your Story Strong: 6 Strategies to Write a Great First Line

Starting a new story or novel is one of the most exciting parts of writing…and also one of the most challenging.

There’s so much to think about: How to “hook” your reader? Where or when does your story start? What characters should be on the first page?

These are huge decisions that will dictate the rest of your story. A while back, I wrote a post on what to include in your first chapter. But this post is all about how to start your story with an amazing first line, so I started with an “investigation,” my standard “read like a writer” procedure to solve my #writerprobs which is what I recommend all aspiring authors do.

To do this, I pulled a stack of books off of my shelf and read only the first lines, thinking about whether or not I would keep reading that novel, based solely on the first line.

There wasn’t one that I wouldn’t continue reading. They all caught my attention – which is probably why they’re on my shelves in the first place. :)

Here’s a sampling of the lines I read:

  1. “I was dozing when I heard the scream. It pierced my head like a mortar round, doing terribly befuddling things to my mind, as loud and terrifying as though it were all happening right there and then.”
  2. “I woke to the patter of rain on canvas, with the feel of my first husband’s kiss on my lips.”
  3. “First they take our flat screen. And the computers, all of Dad’s satellite equipment, stereos, DVDs. Even the George Foreman grill.”
  4. “Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.”
  5. “It is my first morning of high school. I have seven new notebooks, a skirt I hate, and a stomachache.”
  6.  “My mother thinks I’m dead. Obviously I’m not dead, but it’s safer for her to think so.”
  7.  “Five lousy minutes. Detective George Rawls hung up the phone, brought his feet down from his cluttered desktop, looked at his watch, and sighed. If the kid had walked into the station five minutes later, Rawls’s shift would have been over. He would have been driving home to enjoy a peaceful dinner with his wife.”
  8.  “The thing about lying to your parents is, you have to do it to protect them. It’s for their own good.”
  9.  “I remember lying in the snow, a small red spot of warm going cold, surrounded by wolves. They were licking me, biting me, worrying at my body, pressing in.”
  10. “There is one mirror in my house. It is behind a sliding panel in the hallway upstairs. Our faction allows me to stand in front of it on the second day of every third month, the day my mother cuts my hair.”
  11. “Han Alister squatted next to the steaming mud spring, praying that the thermal crust would hold his weight.”

Which ones would you keep reading after reading only the first line?

Every author hooked me and made me ask a question that could only be answered if I kept reading. And, they did this in one or two lines.

How did they do this? After reading like a writer, I discovered six strategies these authors used to start their stories. If you analyzed your favorite books, you could probably find some more.

6 strategies to write a great first line

1) Write a shocking statement, something unbelievable or weird in your character’s life.

Example: “My mother thinks I’m dead. Obviously I’m not dead, but it’s safer for her to think so.” Legend, Marie Lu

Example: “I woke to the patter of rain on canvas, with the feel of my first husband’s kiss on my lips.” The Fiery Cross, Diana Gabaldon

What? In the first example, why does his mother think he’s dead? This character is on the run, so the author takes a fact that sounds completely illogical and shocking and starts there. It works.

In the second, why is she thinking about her first husband? If she’s dreaming of him, what’s the story with her second husband?

The question we instantly ask: Why on earth does his mother think he’s dead? And how can that be safer for her? Who is this guy?

2) Describe the setting, but include features that make it clear we’re reading about a different world.

Example: “There is one mirror in my house. It is behind a sliding panel in the hallway upstairs. Our faction allows me to stand in front of it on the second day of every third month, the day my mother cuts my hair.” Divergent, Veronica Roth

Example: “Han Alister squatted next to the steaming mud spring, praying that the thermal crust would hold his weight.” The Demon King, Cinda Williams Chima

Both of these first lines reference items or events that instantly let the reader know this is a different world. In the first sentence, the character can’t look at a mirror, and in the second, the character is perched on a thermal crust at a steaming mud spring, not a common geographical feature.

The questions we instantly ask: Where are they? Why can’t she look in a mirror? What’s a mud spring and why is he squatting on a thermal crust? What is this world?

3) Include a strong emotional reaction to a situation.

Example: “Five lousy minutes. Detective George Rawls hung up the phone, brought his feed down from his cluttered desktop, looked at his watch, and sighed.” Blank Confession, Pete Hautman

This novel starts off with a character who’s angry that he met a kid who’s obviously going to take a bunch of his time. We also get a great image of this main character. His desk is cluttered. He’s can i buy wellbutrin in mexico annoyed. But, he’s staying, so he’s either really devoted to his work, or he’s got a big heart.

The questions we instantly ask: Who’s the kid? What did he do to end up at the police station? And why is it going to take so long?

4) Describe a shocking memory

Example: “I remember lying in the snow, a small red spot of warm going cold, surrounded by wolves.” Shiver, Maggie Stiefvater

Woah, a memory of wolves. This is a strange but really cool memory, and the writing is lyrical.

The key to this strategy is to make sure that the memory is crucial to the entire rest of the story and character development.

The questions we instantly ask: Is this a story of a werewolf? Or a human raised by wolves? Or perhaps it’s told from a wolf’s perspective?

5) Introduce the main character with a super strong voice and emotion.

Example: “The thing about lying to your parents is, you have to do it to protect them. It’s for their own good.” Twenties Girl, Sophie Kinsella

Example: “Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.” The Fault in Our Stars, John Green

Example: “It is my first morning of high school. I have seven new notebooks, a skirt I hate, and a stomachache.” Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson

Each of these novels are written in first person and the character’s voice is HUGE in the writing style. They’re the main characters, and they’re all EMOTIONAL. One is pissed about the worst summer, another is depressed, and the third is full of anxiety.

These young women start their stories in pretty crappy places. And they all get worse.

The question we instantly ask: What’s so terrible with their lives that they’re emotional wrecks?

6) Include a surprising, bad, or unexplained event.

Example: “I was dozing when I heard the scream. It pierced my head like a morta round, doing terribly befuddling things to my mind, as loud and terrifying as though it were all happening right there and then.” The Finisher, David Baldacci

Example: “First they take our flat screen. And the computers, all of Dad’s satellite equipment, stereos, DVDs. Even the George Foreman grill.” Compromised, Heidi Ayarbe

Bombs going off and having someone take all of your belongings definitely fall into bad and surprising events. These both also have a strong voice.

The first one also has “morta” rounds – that’s not a typo. I’ve heard of mortar rounds but not morta, so this one also has a hint that it’s a different world, right from the very first line.

Questions we instantly ask: Why the bombs? And who’s the “they” that’s taking their belongings and why are they taking them?

Find the Question you Want your Reader to Ask

The key takeaway from this is that the first line of your story must somehow force the reader to ask a question. If the reader asks a question, then they’ll keep reading to find out the answer.

If I were to start a story with, “This morning I woke up at 6:00 and got dressed into an outfit I didn’t like that much before heading to the office,” I would fail to hook my reader.

Would you want to keep reading? I wouldn’t.

There’s nothing there to make me like this character or wonder about her (or his) life. It’s boring.

When you’re crafting your first line, think about what question you want the reader to ask themselves. Is it about your character? Their situation? The world you’ve created?

Then, write a line that somehow forces your reader to ask that question. If you can do that, you’ll hook them.

Conclusion

Give yourself time with this process. I’ve NEVER kept the first, first line that I wrote, though you may be one of the lucky few who nail it on your first try.

Keep writing your story and come back to it. Remember the goal is to get your reader to read your entire story, so write your whole story and then figure out what you really want your reader to wonder about on page one. Give yourself time, and as always, turn off your inner critic and play with this. It’s fun!

Put it in Action

1) Grab your current work in progress.

2) Read the first line. What question(s) did you ask yourself?

3) If you didn’t question anything, think about what you want your readers to wonder about and re-write your first line.

4) Post your first lines and their revisions (if you made any) in the comments below. We can work on them if you’re stuck or see how great they are!

In the comments below, share your favorite first line (either from the list I used or another novel) and/or share any first lines that you wrote and revised after reading this post.

Thank you so much for taking this writing journey with me!
Amy

2 Comments

  1. Kevyn on August 11, 2016 at 9:08 am

    love this! great advice.thanks soo much

    • Amy on August 11, 2016 at 10:39 pm

      You’re welcome. I’m glad you found it helpful!

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