A story only has so much time to make a great first impression: the first line, the blurb or maybe just the cover. When a reader picks up your story, what’s going to keep them reading? What makes a great beginning?
To be honest, I have never paid much attention to the first lines of a book. I don’t have a specific method for choosing what to read — a book can end up on my list because I like the author or because the premise is interesting or because it’s based on something else I’ve liked.
But first lines matter. They can make or break a story, especially if you’re sending it out to find a publisher.
My list of favorite books is quite long so I picked out a few and went back to the beginning. How did these stories start? What was so captivating about them? Why did I keep reading?
Here are the first lines of three of my favorite books. Think about each of them, maybe try to figure out what genre they represent (unless you happen to recognize it instantly), and then scroll down for my more detailed breakdowns.
A. The town was in flames.
B. “Honey, if there was any other way, your mother and I would take you with us in a heartbeat.”
C. “Who’s there? Artyom — go have a look!”
What did you think about these lines?
Were you intrigued?
Which book would you read, based on these lines alone?
Okay, let’s get cracking!
A. Obviously, something bad is happening. It’s hard to figure out a genre yet but this line definitely grabs your attention. It’s short and to the point, but already paints a vivid picture of orange fire and black smoke. Gets your heart pumping.
All we know is that a town is in flames but was the fire set on purpose? Was it an accident? Towns have inhabitants so are they in danger — and where’s our protagonist?
B. Based on the tone of this line, our supposed protagonist — honey — isn’t too happy about the situation and the father is hoping to appease her by relying on logic. They want to take the protagonist with them but they’ve got no choice.
Genre-wise the safe bet is YA. Sure, the father could be the protagonist (the mother, even) but something about the way this line is presented doesn’t make me feel that. I almost feel like I’m being talked to.
Here the interest doesn’t come from immediate gripping action but from the mystery of the current situation. Where are the parents going? Who’s “honey” and what will she do now?
C. This line jumps into action but in a more subtle way. The speaker seems nervous, considering the question and immediate follow-up of ordering someone else to have a look.
The situation feels tense. Maybe they’re not expecting anyone so they’re startled by voices or maybe they’re expecting something bad and want to stay one step ahead. In any case, it doesn’t sound like they’re having a pleasant picnic in a sunny park.
But who is there? What’s making the speaker stay where they are if they’re so nervous? Who’s Artyom and why should he go?
What makes a great beginning then?
The common theme is obvious: questions.
After just one line, our head is filled with questions that drive us to read the next sentence… and the next, and the one after that.
The beginning has to grip us in some way. The opening line in B isn’t that exciting on its own — no doubt we’ve all had similar conversation with our parents — but it still poses questions that urge us to at least figure out what’s so important they can’t take their child with them.
I’ve heard many times that you should start your story at the latest possible moment. Don’t explain, don’t get too descriptive, don’t dawdle.
In all these examples the situation is on-going. We don’t know how the fire started. We don’t know what the parents have already explained about their journey. We don’t know why Artyom and his companion are where they are.
The situation has been developing before the actual beginning of the story and that makes them so compelling. We don’t feel like we’ve started reading just another story, we feel like we’ve been dropped in the middle of an important situation.
So, to sum up How to Start Your Story:
1. Start in the middle of something
2. Fill your reader’s head with questions
What are you waiting for? Go write that gripping beginning!
Your turn: share the first lines of your favorite book(s) !
How do you usually choose what to read?
Have you struggled with writing good beginnings? Have you found a way that works best for you?
And for those curious: A was from Blood of Elves by Andrzej Sapkowski (fantasy), B was from Akarnae by Lynette Noni (YA fantasy), and C was from Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky (post-apocalyptic science fiction).