How to Write a Killer Opening Line
In fiction, first impressions are everything. Your opening line is your chance to convince potential readers why your book is worth their time— if that first line is boring or confusing, they won't hesitate to walk away.
So what makes a killer opening line? In this post, we’ll break down the magic of how great opening lines set the tone of a book, grab the reader's interest, and give a glimpse into what the story will be about. Read on to learn how to write the first line that ensures your book will be read from cover to cover rather than set back on the shelf.
Start with a compelling image
One way to ground your readers in your novel's world and hook them is by introducing them to your story with a captivating image. Giving readers a glimpse of the characters or world they’re committing to spending many hours with will convince them to stay and learn more.
Here’s an example from Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s novel Mexican Gothic, which introduces you to the vibrant world of 1950s Mexico City:
The parties at the Tuñóns’ house always ended unquestionably late, and since the hosts enjoyed costume parties in particular, it was not unusual to see Chinas Poblanas with their folkloric skirts and ribbons in their hair arrive in the company of a harlequin or a cowboy.
The first line of A Snake Falls to Earth by Darcie Little Badger provides another great example of starting out with a unique image, this one offering both characterization and a microcosmic glimpse into the state of the world:
On the hospital bed, her delicate body cradled between thin white pillows, Rosita dreamed.
Lines like these paint a picture that intrigues readers while artfully introducing the plot, characters, setting, and stakes. The quicker you can draw your audience into your story's world, the more likely they will be to stick around— and emotionally invest in your characters.
Set the tone of the story
It may be tempting to start your story with a line that's shocking or exciting, but does that match the rest of your book? If your novel is an action-packed adventure, starting with a car chase or fight scene makes sense. However, it would make much less sense for something like a romantic comedy. Give your reader an idea of what they're in for— if your book is funny, start with a line that guarantees a laugh. If the story is a detective novel, evoke a sense of mystery with your opening sentence.
For example, take the opening line of The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu by Tom Lin:
For a long time it had ceased to trouble him to kill.
As both the title and the first line suggest, this is not a lighthearted, gentle story. The opening sets the tone for what will be a violent Western and gives the reader a sense that the protagonist is something of an antihero.
Another first line that immediately sets the tone and gives the reader a foothold in the story's world is the opening of M.T. Anderson's satirical sci-fi novel, Feed:
We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.
With this opening line, we have an idea of the world in which this story takes place (a future in which people can go on vacations to the Moon) and the voice of the narrator (Titus, a teenager).
Begin in medias res
The phrase “in medias res” means “in the middle of a narrative.” Starting your story out this way means plopping readers into the middle of a scene where some kind of action is already taking place. This is an effective thing to do, even from the very first line, because it gives your opening sentence an opportunity to show what’s at stake—and everyone knows that tension keeps readers flying through the pages!
Beginning your opening line in medias res will also help you avoid frontloading and bogging down your story with info-dumping (a turn-off for readers) and instead pull them immediately into the story’s main conflict (which is much more exciting!).
Take, for example, the opening line of The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern:
The circus arrives without warning.
By starting with the sudden appearance of the Le Cirque des Rêves and describing its wonders, readers experience the startling mystery of the night circus themselves. They are pulled right into the core conflict of the story without even realizing it.
Now take a look at the first sentence of The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin:
Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we?
Talk about pulling readers into the tension of the story! By starting with stakes that are as high as they can possibly get, Jemisin’s in medias res opener grabs readers’ attention and promises a memorable ride they won't want to miss.
Pique your reader's curiosity
There are many ways to entice your readers with a single sentence— forging an immediate emotional connection with readers or making them relate to a character. But a particularly effective way of intriguing readers is by surprising them with a line that introduces something jarring or unexpected, like unique world details, style, voice, or atmosphere.
Take the first line of Kindred by Octavia E. Butler as an example:
I lost an arm on my last trip home. My left arm.
What could be more jarring or intriguing than the questions this sentence raises: Where did the protagonist go? Why did she lose an arm? What will she do now? Starting off with a line that generates intrigue with something unexpected is a surefire way of hooking readers.
Another great example of a first line that dangles an interesting world detail is from Outlander by Diana Gabaldon:
It wasn’t a very likely place for disappearances, at least at first glance.
The idea of a world where people can disappear in unlikely places is surprising and compelling; it’s no wonder that a novel with such a strong start swept readers up into a gripping story that went on to sell over 25 million copies!
Lead your audience naturally into the rest of the story
Once you've grabbed your reader with your killer first line, you have to reward their investment and give them reasons to keep reading.
Consider the first lines of The Mermaid from Jeju by Sumi Hahn:
That summer, the embolus lay snug in its hollow behind Mrs. Junja Moon’s right knee. The little clot gave no twinge nor any other hint of its existence. Trembling in the brisk current of Mrs. Moon's bloodstream, it was unaffected by the hours she spent pickling kimchi and unmoved by her attempts to improve her golf swing. The red blob was even impervious to her rare fits of homesickness, when she turned on the shower to muffle her sobs for Jeju Island, which she fled in the winter of 1948.
The first sentence on its own piques the reader's curiosity. By the end of the first paragraph, we also have a clear sense of who the main character is and what the conflict of this story might be. Everything we learn about Junja Moon in this paragraph is told from the unique perspective of her blood clot, which adds tension to the descriptions of everyday life and creates a sense of foreboding as we keep reading— what is going to happen to this character? With just four sentences, Hahn has given us a reason to feel invested.
When writing your own first sentence, consider how it sets up the opening scene. Does the first line flow naturally to the next, and so on?
Ready to write your own opening lines?
All good opening lines accomplish the same thing—they hook readers and entice them to keep reading. How they do that varies depending on genre, audience, and the author’s purpose or message, but by following the tips above, you’ll ensure that the first line of your book makes a great first impression!