How to Write A Killer First Sentence

How to write a killer first sentence

by author Jodi Meadows

THE ANGST

Sometimes they come to us in a lightning bolt of brilliance.

Most times we must slave over them for hours/days/weeks until we finally get something that might work. With a little more editing. Or a complete rewrite. Oh dear commas why is this so hard???

First lines are things we love to whine about because the story has to start somewhere, right? Usually with that line. And some of us are frozen and unable to move on until the first line is perfect.

Hence the angst.

WHO REALLY CARES ABOUT THE FIRST LINE ANYWAY?

Oh, you mean besides agents, editors, editorial/acquisitions boards, marketing people, book buyers, booksellers, librarians, and readers?

Besides all them?

No one, I guess.

FINE I GET THE POINT. WHY ARE FIRST LINES SO IMPORTANT THOUGH?

An effective first line does a lot of heavy lifting. It will hook the reader, intrigue them, draw them into the next paragraph, and — if it’s especially well-written — give the reader a clue about the entire story.

An effective first line is the hook. How many times have you opened a book, read the first line and, eh. Put it down. Or maybe you’re kinder and give it a little more time, but still, you’re waiting to be drawn in.

Oh the other hand, what about the times you opened a book,, read the first line, and went, “Hello! I will end anyone who comes between this book and me. I must read this. The fate of the world depends on it.”

The second thing is more fun, right?

THINGS TO CONSIDER WHEN CRAFTING A FIRST LINE:

When I’m working on a first line, I put a lot of thought into these things:

1. Pacing/structure: Do I want it to read quickly? Slowly? How do I want the reader to read it? If I have a long, comma-filled sentence in a fast-paced fight scene, I . . . may want to rethink that long, comma-filled sentence and whip out something snappier.

2. Content: What do I want to put in the sentence? Emotion? Action? Thoughts? How does this lead into the beginning scene? And is this event/thought/feeling actually interesting?

3. Mystery/intrigue/hook: I want the reader to ask questions, to be compelled to read on because whatever happens in the first sentence is that awesome.

4. Foreshadowing/symmetry/mirroring: I like my beginnings and endings to match. This often involves knowing where I’m going with the story before I write the first sentence — or heavy rewrites of the first sentence. But I like to begin as I mean to go on, and to see how much of the heart of the story I can capture in one or two sentences.

Writing a killer first sentence isn’t easy. Not one bit. But think about all the fantastic first sentences that stick with you. Worth the sweat? Yes.

SOME OF JODI’S FAVORITE FIRST LINES!

One of the best things about this panel is I get to bring out the examples! And since we’re made of pixels, you didn’t just see me go into the other room and come back with a huuuuuge stack of books.

PARANORMALCY by Kiersten White: “Wait– did you– You just yawned!” The vampire’s arms, raised over his head in the classic Dracula pose, dropped to his sides.

Why this is awesome: There’s a vampire. And the main character–she is yawning at it. Not only is this hilarious, but it gives the reader a great idea of Evie’s attitude toward things everyone else is afraid of. Right off, we know Evie, and we know her world.

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

Why this is awesome: There is a girl bleeding in the snow! And wolves! Wolves nommed her! Except obviously she survived, because she’s remembering it. So what happened? Immediately I’m drawn into the lyrical voice, the conflict, and the suspense.

THE NEAR WITCH by Victoria Schwab: It starts with a crack, a sputter, and a spark.

Why this is awesome: Hello, fire! This is lyrical. The prose draws me into the story and makes me want to know what’s going on. And, after reading the story, I look back at the first line and that is how the story starts. This line is made of magic.

PEGASUS by Robin McKinley: Because she was a princess she had a pegasus.

Why this is awesome: I want to be a princess and have a pegasus. This sentence makes me want to know more about the relationship between princesses and pegasi.

HOURGLASS by Myra McEntire: My small Southern hometown is beautiful in the haunting way an aging debutante is beautiful. The bones are exquisite, but the skin could use a lift.

Why this is awesome: Can’t you just picture this? The analogy is spot on. We’ve all seen faces like this, and comparing a town to them — yes. This shows us there’s an old beauty to the town, and a personality to go along with it.

MOONGLASS by Jessi Kirby: I read once that water is a symbol for emotions. And for a while now I’ve thought maybe my mother drowned in both.

Why this is awesome: This . . . just makes me swoon. It’s gorgeous. Evocative. And it’s really, really sad. It makes me want to know more.

This list is actually trimmed waaaay down from what I originally had, because it was getting too long. Besides, I had to leave a few books for you guys to give me examples! What are some of your favorite first lines? Why?

Jodi Meadows lives and writes in the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, with her husband, a Kippy*, and an alarming number of ferrets. She is a confessed book addict, and has wanted to be a writer ever since she decided against becoming an astronaut. INCARNATE, the beginning of The Newsoul Trilogy, will be published January 31, 2012 by Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers *A Kippy is a cat.

INCARNATE by Jodi Meadows: About the only girl who is new in a world where everyone is perpetually reincarnated, and her quest to discover why she was born, and what happened to the person she replaced.

Coming January 31, 2012 from Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

66 thoughts on “How to Write A Killer First Sentence”

  1. Jodi, you chose some of my favorite first lines. I have Moonglass, but haven’t read it yet. After reading the first line here, I’m putting it on the top of my massive to-read pile.

  2. Tee hee, my favourite:

    There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.

    It’s so funny, and it gives us the feel of the story straight away.

  3. Hey! Really, really (um, really lol) liked this…some great tools for crafting that first sentence and what is crazy? You picked some of my favourite openers too, with Maggie’s being one of my all time favourites-just want to add that in the case of that book, when I am telling kids about it, pretty much all I do is read that sentence. Great thing about Victoria’s opening is the prose is a promise of what the whole book will deliver in terms of how she crafts sentences (man, she’s good!)-hmmm, so that gets me thinking that that first sentence really is your promise to the reader, too.

    Looking forward to reading your book-what an amazing cover! Thanks for being here….enjoy the con!

  4. Theresa — MOONGLASS is woooonderful! And see? That’s exactly what a first sentence is supposed to do: make you NEED the book.

    Tamara — I love that first line too! It *is* hilarious!

  5. Jodi,
    I loved each of the examples you stated and you are right – first lines are important. For whatever reason, my novel came to me in the middle instead of the beginning. For that reason, I had the worst time actually writing a good first line, which as you pointed out – is crucial if we are going to grab an agent, editor, etc attention. Luckily, I think my muse has spoken to me and brought the first line with it.

  6. Deb — clearly you have excellent taste in first lines. ;) Maggie’s first line really is killer. It’s soooo mysterious. I want to know everything about what’s going on there. And you’re right about Victoria’s: it totally prepares you for the rest of the book. Pitch perfect. I like what you said about a promise to the reader. YES! Yes, exactly!

    Natasha — So glad your muse stepped up with that first line. Not having it is sooo frustrating!

  7. One of my favourites in YA is this one:

    “It’s tough, living in the shadow of a dead girl.” (Tell Me a Secret by Holly Cupala)

    Great post, Jodi. Lots of useful information.

  8. Great post! This is something I ponder a lot.

    As for my favorites, Marjorie M. Liu writes really wonderful first lines. I don’t have any of her books handy, but she’s written some brilliant ones.

  9. I love “Sophie couldn’t sleep” (First line from the BFG by Roald Dahl.). When I read it aloud to my fourth graders I like to make my voice quiet as I read those three words slowly. Then we predict why she might be having trouble sleeping…makes for a great intro and the kids are hooked!

    We also discuss the importance of first lines in our “Writers’ Workshop.” You made some excellent points! I can’t wait for the new school year to begin so I can write with my new batch of kids!

  10. Great post Jodi, thanks for sharing.
    Just curious (for the sake of discussion, not to disagree) if anybody else read the article by Nick Mamatas in the July edition of “The Writer” magazine titled, “Don’t Start Your Story With A Strong Hook”. He basically says that “The beginning of the story should tantalize, not hook, the reader.” Thoughts from anyone?

  11. Thanks for posting this, Jodi! The first line is the bane of my existence sometimes : )

    My all time favorite first line is a classic: “When I stepped into the bright light from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman, and a ride home.” The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton.

  12. My absolute favourite first line for MG is from Michelle Harrison’s 13 Treasures: She was aware of their presence in the room before she even awoke.

    What a great hook. I have to read on to find out who/what “their” refers to.

  13. Brigita — That is a great first line! Very moving.

    Caroline — Ohhh, you’re right. She IS good at first lines!

    Patti — Oh, reading that one out loud sounds fantastic! I bet the kids love it.

    JD — I haven’t read that article, but it sounds fascinating. I like the idea of tantalizing the reader, and I think some of the lines I chose absolutely do that. But I’m not sure that hooking and tantalizing must be mutually exclusive. If I’m intrigued by a beautiful first line (Victoria’s, for example), am I not tantalized and hooked into the story?

  14. I love Evernight’s opening by Claudia Gray.

    “IT WAS THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL, WHICH MEANT it was my last chance to escape.”

  15. Great examples, Jodi! My favorite first line is from Slob, by Ellen Potter:

    “My name is Owen Birnbaum, and I’m probably fatter than you are. This isn’t low self-esteem talking. This is pure statistics.”

    Okay, that was three sentences, but they were short. The first line is awesome in itself, and the two following ones are a good complement to it. The whole book is great, by the way. I loved the MC’s voice right from the start.

  16. Such a great post. First lines are so hard to get right. Your tips are really useful and then when you showed us all the examples, that really helped too. Many, like Shiver & Paranormalcy, are some of my favorites.

    Can’t wait to read your book.

  17. This is fantastic! I totally agree on all these first lines, and I can’t wait to get to the point where I can use this to edit my own work. :D

  18. Great article! I do love first lines that pull you right into the character or the setting or the story. It’s an oldie, but I’ve always loved Bradbury’s “It was a pleasure to burn” from Fahrenheit 451 – it sets up the whole story so well.

  19. Rubianna — Oooh, I like that line! Good pick!

    Annie — Dang, that is some snappy writing right there. Love those first sentences.

    Natalie — I’ve been hearing I picked a lot of favorites! I think that just goes to show the power of these lines. They are THAT good. THAT memorable.

    JP — Good luck! I’m glad to hear this was useful!

    Jemi — Bradbury is a master for a reason! Awesome choice!

  20. Hi Jodi,

    Thank you for the article. This is great information. It is so true the first line draws the reader into the story. I suppose the first line sets up the tone for the novel. Those examples are great. I do like the line from MoonGlass.

    The first line from Skin Hunger by Kathleen Duey is good, too. “Micah’s breath scraped in and out of his lungs; his feet were clodded with road-mud.

    But I think my favourite is from The Sorcerer’s Stone.”Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say they were perfectly normal, than you very much.”

    Thanks.

  21. Awesome post, Jodi! The Moonglass line had me at hello and the rest of the book was just as beautiful. And I’m a HUGE Hourglass fan – what an awesome book.

    This is one of my favorites: When I was little, my dad used to tell me, “Will, you can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friends nose.

    Love will grayson, will grayson

  22. Thank you for this awesome post. :D I’m in love with well crafted first sentences that make me want to grab the book and bury myself away from anyone in order to read it as fast as possible and find out what happens.

    One of my favourite first sentences is from Richelle Mead’s The Vampire Academy.

    “I felt her fear before i heard her screams.”

    So intriguing!

  23. Thanks for the great article. Your examples and explanations were very well done. Here’s one of my favorite openings from Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief:

    Chapter One: I Accidentally Vaporize My Pre-Algebra Teacher

    Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood.

    This first line in conjunction with the chapter heading (which really grabs the reader’s attention) made me want to read on not only to find out what a “half-blood” was, but also how Percy Jackson Vaporized his teacher.

    I love snappy chapter titles… they can really draw a reader in as much as a first line can.

  24. My favorite first line (I’m surprised no one’s put it up!) is in Uglies by Scott Westerfeld.
    The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit.

  25. Excellent post, Jodi! As I was reading I began to think about a book I recently read, The first line wasn’t doing it for me and that was a foreshadow, but I read the book anyway.

    My favorite first line from Black Beauty:

    The first place that I can well remember was a large pleasant meadow with a pond of clear water in it.

    Second favorite from Charlotte’s Web:

    Where’s Papa going with that ax?

  26. Great point Jodi. I actually asked myself the same question when I read the article, can you clarify “tantalizing” vs. “hooking” the reader in the opening lines? Seems like a fuzzy distinction to a novice writer like myself. Thanks!

  27. Great post, Jodi! I’ve read three out of six of those books (*runs out to buy the other three*), and they’re all great examples. When that first line is amazing, it just sucks you right in–even if you were kind of iffy on the book premise.

  28. “Where’s Papa going with that ax?”

    Even though I’ve been told not to start with dialogue, this line draws me right in, sets up the entire theme of the story, and I bet everyone reading knows what book and author I’m talking about!

  29. Excellent post! The first sentence is so telling, and a good one definitely sucks you in for the rest of the book. I also think first sentences can be really fun to right. If you get a good one in your head, it can spark so many great ideas and possibilities.

  30. Great post Jodi!
    Thanks for sharing. As some of the others have already said, Maggie’s first line (and the ones that follow) is fabulous. I really love the poetry in Shiver and the rest of the trilogy.
    Also another book with poetry is Matched by Ally Condie:
    “Now that I’ve found the way to fl y, which direction should I go into the night?”

  31. You’re spot on, Jodi. I do usually give more than a first line before I pass on a book, but if that first line grabs me, I don’t let go. For me, I am personally drawn in more by a great line of dialogue. It immediately puts me in the action, especially if it’s funny or leading. I’m also particularly drawn to first lines that evoke strong emotional responses. Jessi Kirby’s MOONGLASS is a perfect example of that, and I know you used that one as well.

  32. Great examples, Jodi. All good for different reasons.

    I note that for a couple you include the first two or so lines–and that counts too! I think it really should be the first paragraph. Sometimes five words or so can’t quite carry all that weight. :)

  33. I think it must be:

    Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.

    I love how reminiscent it is of Austen. It sets up that this is an author who can really write and that there will be strange and, dare I say it, magical things going on. It’s so awesome!

  34. Wow. I need to up my game when it comes to first sentences.

    I agree that Maggie’s opening line is totally awesome, as well as Robin McKinley’s, and you’ve definitely introduced me to a few more. :)

  35. “I have been accused of being anal retentive, an overachiever, and a compulsive perfectionist, like those are bad things.”
    –MILLICENT MIN, GIRL GENIUS by Lisa Yee

    “The pastor is saying something about how Charlie was a free spirit. He was and he wasn’t. He was free because on the inside he was tied up in knots. He lived hard because inside he was dying. Charlie made inner conflict look delicious.”
    –PLEASE IGNORE VERA DIETZ by A.S. King

    “I found him in the garage on a Sunday afternoon. It was the day after we moved into Falconer Road. The winter was ending. Mum had said we’d be moving just in time for the spring. Nobody else was there. Just me. The others were inside the house with Dr. Death, worrying about the baby.”
    –SKELLIG by David Almond

    “Kaye took another drag on her cigarette and dropped it into her mother’s beer bottle.”
    –TITHE by Holly Black

    These aren’t all-time favorites or anything, but all good in their own ways, aren’t they?

  36. One of my favorites is from Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines.

    It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.

  37. I enter a lot of pitch contests (it’s good exercise for those pitching muscles) but my favorites are actually the first-line contests that some bloggers run. It’s so interesting to read everyone’s first lines, because you know they’ve put so much craft into that first impression. It also reinforces how subjective the process can be, when you see which one the agent or other judge picks as the winner. Sometimes it lines up with my favs, and sometimes not.

  38. This jumped to mind as a fun one:

    “I didn’t ask to be a celebrity. I never wanted to appear on The Adrian Lush show. And let’s get one thing straight right now–the wold would have to be hurtling toward imminent destruction before I’d do anything as dopey as The Thursday Next Workout Video.”

    –Lost in A Good Book, A Thursday Next Novel by Jasper Fforde (seriously the best literary candy for book nerds, IMHO.)

    Great list, Jodi–and wunderbar tips. I’m off to scrub out my old first sentence and replace it with the *perfect* first sentence RIGHT NOW!

    Very inspiring! Thank you!

  39. Wow, there are a lot of comments! Okay, taking these in order:

    Nikki — Thanks!

    Ladonna — Those are both wonderful examples! I love the JKR one. It’s so memorable!

    Alison — Yay for books that end in glass! (I didn’t realize that until I had both of them sitting right there.) That’s a fantastic first line!

    Carolin — Yes, isn’t that the best? Meeting a first line that makes me want to hide in my room all day with the book . . . magical!

    Joseph — Oh wow, yeah. That chapter title + first line = win, definitely.

    Ardis — I love that first line! UGLIES is actually in my TBR pile. I’m embarrassed I haven’t read it yet.

    Robyn — Those are both classic first lines! Great choices!

    JD — I think it matters less what you call it and MORE if it works, you know? A great first line will do a hundred things. A so-so first line . . . won’t.

    Jessica — Yay! Which books have you read? They’re all wonderful, wonderful books.

    Casey — Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed it!

    Wendy — That’s two votes for CHARLOTTE’S WEB. It really is a great one.

    Annie — Yes! The best first sentences have sooo many places to go. Love them so much.

    Anna — You’re right: Maggie is a fantastic writer. Her prose is just delicious.

    Robin — Oh yeah, I like to give books more than just the first line, too, but the right first line can definitely make my reading experience even better. :D The MOONGLASS line just makes me swoon every time.

    Susan — Agreed! Sometimes first lines stand on their own. Sometimes they need a pause for another punch. And that’s okay!

    Gennifer — Second vote for JKR. That whole paragraph is just PERFECT, isn’t it? *happysigh*

    Kaye — Yay! I love introducing people to great books. These are all wonderful reads, and I can’t tell you enough how much I love them.

    James — Yo, dude! Good to see you! The first line of INCARNATE is one of those that stayed the same in every draft: “I wasn’t reborn.” But that’s actually the second first line now? Something like that. I was asked to add a short diary entry before the opening scene, so now the first first line is: “What is a soul, but a consciousness born and born again?” I’m kind of in love with both lines.

    Emily — Those are all fantastic first lines. The MILLICENT MIN, GIRL GENIUS is my favorite, I think. I haven’t read that book, but now I really want to!

    Karen — Niiiice. Wow, that is evocative! Definitely makes me want to know more.

    Angelica — Oh totally! It’s a very subjective business. I love seeing which lines stand out to other people that maybe doing quiiiite do it for me. It’s amazing what makes that first line for THEM.

    Jennifer — Ohh, nice choice! Glad this was inspiring! It kind of makes me want to go write a dozen first lines, too.

  40. Excellent advice in this. I especially like to think about an opening line echoing the ending.
    One of my favorite openers is from MT Anderson’s FEED (it actually caused me to buy the book because of the voice).
    We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.

  41. Jodi,
    Top TWO things I came away with from your wonderful session:
    1. Carrying the theme
    2. Promise to the reader.

    AWESOME stuff and great to keep in mind before getting even the first word down. THANKS!!!

  42. One of my favorite lines EVER: The guman was useless.

    Why is it awesome? (Hee! I’m copying a bit) IT IS A GUNMAN! And it makes you want to know….why is he useless?

    I’ve got so many others, but I can’t remember them all!! LOL

    AND YOU USED SHIVER! YAY! *hug* Thanks for the advice. It is awesome!

  43. Patricia — Oooo, I love that first line! I still haven’t read the book (I feel like I will never catch up!), but that would definitely get me. Wow.

    Valerie — YAY! Those are the exact things I wanted you to take away from this.

    Violet — Love that first line! It totally makes me curious.

  44. I can’t believe no one has mentioned this one :)

    “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.” -Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book

    How could you not turn the page?
    Great post. Thanks so much!

  45. Great workshop, Jodi! Thank you! Like PatriciaJO’Brien, FEED has one of my fave first lines. I struggle with first lines and first chapters. Your book sounds fascinating! Can’t wait to read it. Would you mind sharing its first line?

  46. Julie — Great pick!

    Alisa — That was actually on my short list!! I had to cut it for space though— I mean I left it for you to point out. *g*

    Kellye — Thanks! Glad you think so! I actually shared the first line toward the end of the loooong reply to other comments. It’s in response to James’s request for it!

  47. Jodi, thank you for an article jammed pack with information on how to make an opening line ROCK!!

    Two of my favorite opening lines are:

    Marley was dead, to begin with.
    A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens

    All children, except one, grow up.
    Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie

  48. So much great advice! I’ve been having a bit of a rough time figuring out my first sentence so this put a lot of things in perspective for me. Thank you so much.

  49. My fav is…. MOONGLASS by Jessi Kirby: I read once that water is a symbol for emotions. And for a while now I’ve thought maybe my mother drowned in both.

    Love it!!

    Kelly Ethan

  50. Jodi, Thank you! This inspired me to do writing exercise on my blog! It really gets you thinking about what works and what doesn’t…and why.

  51. This is great advice! I’ve been struggling with my first line, and while reading this, I had an idea that I think might work really well. Thank you!

  52. Kim — Glad you like!

    Dawn — Awesome!! I’m really happy to hear that!

    Jess — Just the other day I was told I’m a brain plunger. So, uh, happy to plunge your brain? *g*

  53. Hi Jodi,

    Thanks for your post! I have a question for you. Do you know if there is any sort of faux-pas to using dialogue as a book’s first line? Or does it not matter as long as it’s still good and catchy?

  54. Rue — I know some people don’t love it, but if you do a great job with it, no one will care. Look at Beth Revis’s ACROSS THE UNIVERSE. Starts with dialogue! And PARANORMALCY just up there. Dialogue again! Rules schmules. Do what works. (As long as it *actually* works.)

  55. I loved your examples with analysis – and you had a couple of my faves on your list! (SHIVER, PARANORMALCY)

    Another one I love is the first line from THE MAZE RUNNER, by James Dashner: “He began his new life standing up, surrounded by cold darkness and stale, dusty air.”

    It leaves me wondering: What is this new life he’s beginning? Why is it dark? Why is the air stale – where is he? What does “new life” mean, anyway? And who begins any life standing up?

    It’s such an evocative first line.

  56. I like to write my beginnings better than I can make an impact on the reader. Did I mention I like the beginning examples?

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