The minute I open a book and start to read, I know whether I’ll like it or not. And often, by the end of page ten, I’ve decided whether I’m in or out.
As a reader, this is simple– I get to decide how to proceed. As an author, this creates a lot of pressure. How do I immediately engage the reader? How can I grab him or her so firmly that it’s impossible to put the book down? How do I use a single sentence, like a lure on the end of a fishing line, to compel someone to continue reading?
Here’s the thing. Your first line must reveal character and setting and a question.
And yes, it must grip the reader.
Right now, I’m reading the novel Hausfrau, by Jill Alexander Essbaum. It’s kind of an updated Madame Bovary, and I’m loving it. Set in Switzerland, we follow a young-ish American wife, married to a Swiss banker, who is dangerously bored and begins to act recklessly in her sexual life. Here’s the first line… “Anna was a good wife, mostly.”
We get the main character, Anna, we get that the setting will most probably be domestic. And finally, we get a question—how is she NOT a good wife? And we must read on to find out.
Think about the opening line in your book. What does it reveal about your main character? How does it give a glimpse into setting? What is the dramatic question you are using to engage the reader and compel them on?
Your opening line may not come to you when you first start writing. You may have to write past it, deep into the story to even know who the character is, or what the question might be. On the other hand, you might type it right away, and this gut instinct will guide the rest of your writing.
A first line will not make or break your book, but in the first ten pages you definitely have to plunge the reader into an interesting character and introduce a conflict which will hold them to the page. If possible, your first line should also reveal the “voice” or tone of the book.
Here is a list of the American Book Review’s top ten best opening lines in novels:
1. Call me Ishmael. – Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)
2. 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)
3. A screaming comes across the sky. – Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)
4. Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. – Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967; trans. Gregory Rabassa)
5. Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. – Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)
6. Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. – Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877; trans. Constance Garnett)
7. riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs. – James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (1939)
8. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. – George Orwell, 1984 (1949)
9. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
10. I am an invisible man. – Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)
Notice that all of these lines deliver on a character or “voice.” We hear the specificity of the person revealing the information, even if it’s just a narrator. Notice also that most imply a setting. One thing that ALL OF THEM DO, is present a question to the reader.
I love that the number one opening line in fiction (according to this list) is simply a man asking the reader to call him by his name. The tone is somewhat foreboding. We wonder, “Is there another name he’s called by?” We don’t know the setting, but we get a sense of the world we are entering. It’s formal, and the name feels biblical. It seems that Ishmael will be the main character, but soon, the book becomes a double narrative, with Ishmael telling the story of the monomaniacal Ahab trying to kill the whale. I believe this first line is so famous because it simply demands our attention. “Call me Ishmael.” As a reader, I’m like, “Yes sir.” And I follow.
Think through all these lines and decode the question that grabs the reader– will “she” find a man with a fortune? What’s screaming across the sky? Why is this dude facing a firing squad and at the same time remembering his childhood? How is the family in Anna Karenina unhappy? What the hell is going on in Finnegans Wake?
Take action! How will you open your book? What first line can introduce the reader to a character, a setting, and a dramatic question? How will you engage with the reader in such a way that they must figure something out? How can you create an image so compelling– a firing squad juxtaposed with the discovery of ice, clocks that are striking thirteen, an obsession so strong (light of my life, fire of my loins!), an invisible man– that the reader is helpless against it?
Here’s one of my favorite opening lines (also from the American Book Review List):
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)
Just from this one line, I know who this kid is. I like him. And I want to find out why he’s so cynical.
Salinger has hooked me.
How will you hook your reader?
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