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Writing

How to Write a Great First Line for Your Novel

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 4 min read

A great first line can captivate your audience and instantly immerse them in your literary world. Your opening sentence should grab your reader’s attention and lead them right into your story (and hopefully, to the last line).

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6 Tips for Writing a Memorable Opening Line

With countless ways to start a novel, your first sentence can take on many forms. Below are a few ideas for a great opening line to inspire you to find your own way to begin:

  1. Start in the middle of a story. The first lines don’t have to begin with long descriptions of a room’s appearance or a character’s personality. You can provide these descriptions indirectly if you launch right into some action. Try using in medias res to immerse your audience in the action on the very first page, piquing their curiosity about what is going on and hooking their interest to read the rest. An example of this is The Gunslinger (1982) by Stephen King, which starts in the middle of a pursuit between two unknown characters, and immediately sets up an interesting action scenario. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998) is also an example of a novel that opens in the middle of things (as well as establishes a history)—in this case, an argument between some family members.
  2. Open with a mystery. Begin your novel with a scenario that fills the reader with questions they want answered. One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), by Gabriel García Márquez, focuses the first lines on its main character, Colonel Aureliano Buendía, about to face a firing squad but reminiscing about a distant afternoon he spent with his father. This kind of opening paragraph creates a suspenseful feeling and sets up questions for the reader to answer as they read on—what did this person do? Why is he about to die? Why is he thinking about his father now, and will that memory relate to what’s about to happen?
  3. Flash back to the past. Flash back to a previous time in your character’s life where you can provide backstory or additional details showing how they arrived at that particular moment, or continue on from that point in the story and let the present narrative inform who your character is. No matter how you choose to proceed, make sure your first line gives your audience a reason to keep reading.
  4. Describe the current state of affairs. A simple statement can pave the way for an intriguing first paragraph and set the stage for the kind of novel readers are about to experience. The first line of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1878) is a statement from a character’s point of view that tells the reader this novel is about family. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) starts with a line about how things are, and A Tale of Two Cities (1859) starts with lines about how things were. Both of these openings provide a fact about the state of affairs in both present and past respectively, eventually weaving them into the larger narrative.
  5. Set the tone. The first line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) establishes the wittiness and satirical tone the rest of the novel is built upon by providing a sentence that encapsulates the mood of the time period. By providing the point of view of the narrator or a main character, you can give the reader a feel for what kind of story they’re about to get themselves into. The Bell Jar (1963) by Sylvia Plath also establishes a specific mood by referring to a “queer, sultry summer” in New York, and referencing the electrocution of the Rosenbergs, which indicates not just the mood of the immediate setting, but an entire nation as a whole. George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) establishes its dystopian setting by referencing the clocks “striking thirteen,” informing the readers that this story happens in a world where the rules are quite different.
  6. Start with a voice. Whether it’s the narrator’s or the main character’s, starting with the speaker’s perspective can catapult us right into the feelings of that person, or start laying the groundwork for our empathy towards them. For instance, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1951) famously opens with a young man—Holden Caulfield’s—unique narration, and Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick (1851) starts with the infamous and stoic declaration of “Call me Ishmael.” Lolita (1955) by Vladimir Nabokov opens with the narrator’s passionate and dramatic line addressed to the object of his affection. Each of these openings forms a picture of the person we will spend the rest of the story getting to know.

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