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Writing

6 Tips for Writing the Opening Line of Your Novel

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 3 min read

A successful novel requires compelling characters, a tight story structure, and exciting plot points. Yet one of the most important things to consider in the novel-writing process is your opening line. From the initial words of Moby Dick to opening line Harry Potter, the first sentence of a novel has the ability to hook a generation of readers. Great writers like Toni Morrison and Stephen King use their opening lines to introduce characters, establish mood, and otherwise entice readers into turning the pages to find out what happens next.

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Why Are a Novel’s Opening Lines Important?

The first lines of a novel or short story must grab the reader’s attention, enticing them to continue past the first page and continue reading. The first sentence provides you with an opportunity to showcase your writing style, introduce your main character, or establish the inciting incident of your narrative.

Oftentimes, potential readers will glance at the opening sentence in a bookstore or on an online sample page in order to decide if they want to buy the book in the first place, so a great opening line may be the difference between a bestselling novel and a good story that languishes in obscurity.

6 Tips for Writing a Great Opening Line

Writing a great opening line isn’t as simple as typing “Once upon a time…” The first scene of your novel needs to capture your reader’s attention and introduce them to the characters, mood, and themes of your novel. Here are some different types of openings to explore when writing the first draft of your novel:

  1. State your theme. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy begins with the line, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This line establishes the novel’s theme of dysfunctional families. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice opens with the line, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Austen’s opening sentence encapsulates the centrality of desire for socially advantageous matrimony, a theme which she explores throughout the rest of the book. Consider the central theme of your story idea and brainstorm ways to distill it down to a single sentence.
  2. Begin with a strange detail. An opening line can hook readers by introducing an uncanny detail right off the bat. A classic example is the opening line of George Orwell’s 1984, which references clocks striking thirteen. In the first paragraph, readers understand that something is unusual about the world of the novel. Additionally, the number thirteen comes with a host of ominous and supernatural connotations, setting the novel’s foreboding tone from the very first scene.
  3. Establish your character’s voice. The first chapter of J.D. Salinger’s first novel The Catcher in the Rye immediately gives readers the sense of the main character’s point of view: irreverent, detached, and jaded. Brainstorm a simple, effective way to introduce your protagonist’s general attitude and tone in the opening paragraph.
  4. Introduce your narrative style. Sometimes, an introductory line can appeal to readers through pure lyricism and narrative style. Quick staccato bursts of pure syllable introduce readers to Vladimir Nabokov’s distinct writing style in Lolita, and his technical ingenuity provides incentive enough to continue reading. If you have a signature style of writing, let it shine it for the first time in your opening sentence.
  5. Convey the stakes. The opening of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez instantly greets the reader with the sobering fate of Colonel Aureliano Buendía. From the first line, readers know that the colonel’s journey will end with him staring down a firing squad, suggesting that his story is one of life and death. Rather than acting as a spoiler, this third-person opening encourages us to read the rest of the story to discover the backstory of how the protagonist ends up dead.
  6. Set the scene. Chapter one of The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath begins by setting the scene for our main character. Plath uses a combination of sensory details (the stifling summer heat) and morbid events (the Rosenbergs’ execution) to present an opening scene that is uncomfortable and claustrophobic, providing an ominous backdrop for our first-person narrator’s confusion and ennui.
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