The Importance of First Lines for Storytellers

Say the average length of a novel runs around 80,000 words. Contained in those 80,000 words are likely thousands of sentences. How important could one line out of thousands possibly be?

When it comes to first lines, I think you'll find they're nearly as important as successfully pitching the One Ring into the fiery depths of Mount Doom (or, to be a little less dramatic, as important as having matching seam allowances when piecing a quilt or wearing a pair of jeans that don't squash the life out of you during a long car journey), but let's explore that theory, shall we?

Let’s start by defining the word “important” so we’re all on the same footing.

One of the ways it’s defined in the Cambridge Dictionary is “necessary or of great value.” Another definition is “having great effect or influence.”

Necessary.” That’s an interesting word to explore ...

Is a good first line truly necessary?

I think this question breaks down into two distinct ponderings: (1) is a good first line truly necessary to sell a story (to a literary agent, say), and (2) is a good first line truly necessary to hook a reader.

We’ll come back to the former, so let’s explore the latter question first, from my personal perspective as a reader.

To hook a reader, is a good first line essential?

Most of the time, no, at least to my mind. If the first line doesn’t grab me, I’ll move on to the next, and then the next. It takes a few pages to a chapter’s worth of “why am I reading this again?” for me to set a book aside.

Personally speaking, if a first line goes on forever without seeming to do anything significant, paints a picture of a grossly violent main character or situation, intimates harm to vulnerable members of society, or is unapologetically offensive, my Spidey sense kicks in. I may or may not set the story aside permanently at that point. If I do carry on, I’m more willing than Elizabeth Bennet to have my first impressions refuted, but not by much. Sometimes this is to protect my time (so many books on that to-be-read list!) and other times this is to protect my mental well-being. Some things, I just can’t stomach.

Two things to emphasise about the above:

  1. It’s rare that the first lines of a story kick my Spidey sense into such high gear that I won’t carry on with the story at all.
  2. What doesn’t work for me could very well work for someone else.

I’ll admit that I’m perhaps less likely to remember the beginning of a story (no matter how good it is) than the ending, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth spending time and effort on. Every part of a story should serve a purpose to some degree, and the opening lines – the first impression – is no different.

This is where we rejoin the path from earlier!

Is a good first line necessary to captivate an industry professional?

“Your manuscript should shine from the very first paragraph. Of course the story is going to improve as someone reads along, but your opening pages should be captivating. If you picked the book up at a bookstore and read the first page, would you want to continue reading?”

Maria Vicente, Literary Agent (quote link no longer available)

This quote exemplifies the most common view I've seen among literary agents, so it's safe to say that a good first line is necessary if you’re pursuing traditional publication. If you’re self-publishing and getting your book directly from you to your readers’ hands (or e-readers), you’ll have to decide how important it feels to you. I think the most reliable route here is to follow the same standards set by traditional publishing, but it’s your choice.

What constitutes a good first line?

Let’s revisit the second part of the definition of “important”: does a good first line have “great value” and “influence”?

Gee whiz, does it ever! Think of it like that very first taste of a meal. A scrumptious first bite won’t just set high expectations for the rest of a meal: it’ll leave you feeling relieved (that it turned out all right/you picked the right thing off the menu/your new significant other is actually a really good cook) and excited to carry on with the experience.

From my perspective, a good first line also gives you a wee bit of wiggle room as your story unfolds: readers will have more patience for a story that engages you from the start (because surely, hopefully, that’s a sign of good things to come) than one that leaves you feeling neutral or unmotivated to carry on. It’s not an excuse for us to write the world’s longest description of a birch tree, of course (you’ll have to provide more than a good first line to justify that one), but, in my own experience, I’ll give up on a poorly-started story more quickly than a story which began on solid footing.

How, then, do we make sure the first line has value? Remember, a first line is only so long, and even if you look at it as a package deal with the first few lines of a story, that’s still not much time to leave an impression. That’s why I’d suggest focusing on one specific goal for the line, one thing to emphasise, one aspect of the story that matters in a truly significant way.

Also, don’t be afraid to raise questions within the first line. Unanswered questions invites an inquisitive reader to carry on out of sheer curiosity, if nothing else!

If this feels like too much pressure, focus on the first few lines instead of the very first one, as I've done in the examples below. Something that sounds stilted and awkward crammed into one line could be absolutely perfect spaced out over two or three. Remember, it's easier to refine what's on the page than perfect what's only in your mind, so just go for it!

Let’s look at a few examples of what you could accomplish with a first line or two.

Option 1 | Emphasise a core relationship

“Clare: It’s hard being left behind. I wait for Henry, not knowing where he is, wondering if he’s okay. It’s hard to be the one who stays.”

The Time Traveler's Wife

In the opening lines of The Time Traveler’s Wife, we’re introduced to the two main characters, Clare and Henry. We don’t know who they are or what their relationship is, but there clearly is one.

For a deeper look, let’s take this line by line:

“Clare: It’s hard being left behind.”

Who is Clare? Who or what is leaving her behind? Did she have any choice in the matter?

“I wait for Henry, not knowing where he is, wondering if he’s okay.”

If Clare is the one waiting, Henry is the one who’s left her behind, but why? Who are they to each other? Why couldn’t he stay? Why couldn’t she go? How long has he been gone? Why can’t he let her know where he is? What’s so risky about the situation that she has to wonder if he’s all right?

“It’s hard to be the one who stays.”

Clare is the one who stays. Henry is the one who leaves. They’re two halves of a whole, two halves of a story, two halves of a dynamic. We still don’t know for sure that it’s romantic, but there’s obviously caring here, at least on Clare’s side.

I also feel like you could get the impression from these lines that this has happened before, that this isn’t the first time. What do you think? I’ve read this book more times than I can count, so I can’t entirely trust “first impressions” of it anymore.

By the time we finish reading these lines, we’ve been introduced to:

  1. Clare and Henry as a pair, two sides of a coin, with some kind of connection.
  2. An emotionally painful dynamic of someone who stays and someone who leaves, the specifics of which we still don’t know for sure.

As we read The Time Traveler’s Wife, we discover that these two things (the connection between Henry and Clare, and the involuntary time travelling he does), and the way they develop and come into conflict make up the core of the story, things that we were introduced to in the very first paragraph. If we go back and reread the lines later on, they have more and more emotional heft the further we are in the story.

Also, if you’ve ever been in a position of being left behind or needing to leave someone you care about, the first lines of The Time Traveler’s Wife go a long way to helping you connect with the plight of these characters.

Option 2 | Emphasise setting and tone

“Our story is about a town, a small town, and the people who live in the town. From a distance, it presents itself like so many other small towns all over the world. Safe. Decent. Innocent. Get closer, though, and you start seeing the shadows underneath.”

Riverdale, Season 1, Episode 1

This narration takes place during the first twenty seconds of the premiere episode of Riverdale, while showing equally idyllic clips of tree-lined streets, a kid doing their paper route, and Pop’s Chock’lit Shoppe. What questions does Jughead’s opening narration raise, what impressions does it leave, and what effect does it have?

“Our story is about a town, a small town, and the people who live in the town.”

So far, this is pretty nondescript. Are we venturing down a Mystic, Connecticut in Mystic Pizza route? Stars Hollow in Gilmore Girls? Deep Valley in the Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace? Where are we going with this?

“From a distance, it presents itself like so many other small towns all over the world.”

Aha ... now we’re getting somewhere. Saying it “presents itself” a certain way implies that all is not as it seems.

“Safe. Decent. Innocent.”

Going off what’s implied by the previous line, this would suggest the setting of Riverdale is at least somewhat dangerous, maybe even corrupt.

“Get closer, though, and you start seeing the shadows underneath.”

Okay. I’m intrigued. What kind of shadows are we talking about here? Also, because a town is only as “innocent” or “decent” or “safe” as the people who live there, we can infer that some of the citizens of this small town can’t necessarily be trusted.

Right off the bat, Riverdale presents itself as a show to be questioned at every turn: who (and what) do we trust? And that’s something that, four seasons on, continues to be true. There’s very little you can count on, though a few things have turned out to be pretty steadfast.

I’ll be the first to admit that Riverdale has its issues, and they includes a slightly haphazard approach to how they execute some marvellously convoluted storylines. I tend to describe the show as pulp fiction with a heart.

As far as those opening lines go, however? Promise fulfilled. Riverdale continues to play on the premise of a small town with dark secrets, bobbing ever onwards on the faint glimmer of hope that someday, perhaps, it can be redeemed by people learning from the mistakes of the past.

There’s something else promised in the very first line that continues to be true: Riverdale doesn’t take place anywhere else. There are references to New York City, and some characters have made very occasional sojourns to rural areas or neighbouring small towns, but 99% of the scenes take place in Riverdale itself, with all the small-town gossip and familiarity it brings.

While not the most specific or glittering of first lines, I do like how Riverdale clarifies right from the get-go that all is not soft and fluffy in Riverdale. It’s an interesting way to draw you in – very different from a show like Mad Men, which spends the first episode setting Don Draper up as a charismatic, big city, arrogant, and clever ad executive, only revealing in the final minutes of the episode that, despite his airy demeanour and not even mentioning them once (and waking up in the arms of another woman) he has a wife and two kids, who he seems to view with some tenderness, and a house in the suburbs. Both shows make it clear that all is not as it seems but take an entirely different approach to conveying this.

Option 3 | Emphasise the main theme

“My father's family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.”

Great Expectations

This might just be my favourite example in the entire post, and not just because Great Expectations is one of my favourite stories. I love how Charles Dickens managed to write a beginning that seems at first incredibly mundane and yet, in retrospect, means everything.

I’ll be the first to admit that when I read these lines (even now, after having read the book a few times and falling in love with it from the get-go), my initial reaction is still, “Aw! That’s so cute.”

Nothing terribly academic or analytical about that, is there? 😉

So instead of sharing what might be first reactions to these lines, I’d like to instead touch on what Dickens has done here: that is to say, he’s conveyed the theme of the novel and one of the largest sources of conflict in just a few words about how Pip couldn’t properly pronounce his own name as a wee one.

Great Expectations is what’s known as a bildungsroman, a story which closely follows the main character’s growth from a child into adulthood and all the requisite turmoil that comes along with it. There’s something quite fitting, then, about focusing on Pip’s name in the first lines, as Pip’s identity, and how he presents himself and appears to the people he encounters, shifts as he grows up.

If you’re unfamiliar with the story of Great Expectations, Pip comes from humble circumstances and receives a great sum of funds from a mysterious benefactor, on two conditions: one, that Pip won’t dig into the identity of his benefactor, and, two, that Pip will “always bear the name of Pip.” At various points in the story, he’s referred to as Pip, Mr. Pip, sir, dear Mr. Pip, and Handel (a nickname from his friend Herbert).

Have you read Great Expectations before?

As succinctly stated by The Victorian Web, “The evolution of Pip's name mirrors changes in Pip's character in the course of the novel.” While the first lines don’t foreshadow the darkness and turmoil to come, they do an amazing job of setting up the heart of Great Expectations. Between those first lines and the title, the core of the story is laid out from the get-go: enough to intrigue without being overly effusive or verbose.

Option 4 | Emphasise the protagonist

Ambassador Udina: Well, what about Shepard? He grew up in the colonies.

Captain Anderson: He knows how tough life can be out there. His parents were killed when slavers attacked Mindoir.

Admiral Hackett: He saw his whole unit die on Akuze. He could have some serious emotional scars.

Captain Anderson: Every soldier has scars. Shepard's a survivor.

Ambassador Udina: Is that the kind of person we want protecting the galaxy?

Captain Anderson: That's the only kind of person who can protect the galaxy.

Ambassador Udina: I'll make the call.

Mass Effect 1

The opening narrative of the first Mass Effect game takes place right after you’ve left the character creation screen, where we’ve (a) learned that our character – Commander Shepard – is in the Alliance Military and (b) chosen a few things about their backstory and their role in the military. Beyond a few random place names that don’t mean much to us, that’s all we know.

Let’s have a look at the dialogue, line by line, to see what it reveals, given what we know so far.

Ambassador Udina: Well, what about Shepard? He grew up in the colonies.

Nothing new here. This line is based on the information we chose during character creation. There is a vague wondering in my mind, though: why is Shepard under discussion?

Captain Anderson: He knows how tough life can be out there. His parents were killed when slavers attacked Mindoir.

Admiral Hackett: He saw his whole unit die on Akuze. He could have some serious emotional scars.

Again, mostly information we already know from character creation. I do like how it’s being woven seamlessly into this conversation, though. Now I’m really starting to wonder why Shepard is being discussed in such detail. Why does all this matter to these men?

Captain Anderson: Every soldier has scars. Shepard's a survivor.

Ambassador Udina: Is that the kind of person we want protecting the galaxy?

Well, that escalated quickly! Up to now, they could have been discussing Shepard as a candidate for all sorts of different missions. The stakes just zoomed into the stratosphere with this line. It also begs the question, who or what is Shepard protecting the galaxy from? And what kind of person is Shepard, to be capable of such a massive task?

Before carrying on, I should mention that I couldn’t remember how much this dialogue differs depending on the backstory you’ve chosen for Shepard. As it turns out, there’s a significant difference at this point. If you’ve chosen the backstories which lead to Captain Anderson describing Shepard as “a survivor” or someone who “gets the job done, no matter what the cost,” Ambassador Udina expresses the doubt above. If, however, you’ve chosen the backstory where Shepard has been commended already as a war hero, Ambassador Udina doesn’t question the choice and instead says, “We can’t question his courage.”

This is a clever introduction to a narrative where the choices you make as Commander Shepard influence your options with and reception from the people you encounter. For anyone writing a linear story (like a novel or a screenplay) without player choice, this serves as an excellent reminder of how we can establish information about characters in just a few lines, based on how they’re portrayed and viewed by others. We’ve learned a tiny bit about Captain Anderson, Ambassador Udina, and Admiral Hackett in this exchange, too.

Captain Anderson: That's the only kind of person who can protect the galaxy.

Hmm ... interesting. I like how Anderson turns this around, and it’s an intriguing insight into his view of the situation (whatever it is) and Shepard’s abilities. Also, I still want to know what the heck Shepard is supposed to protect the galaxy from!

Ambassador Udina: I'll make the call.

And off we go!

For a few lines of dialogue that take place within the first minute after leaving the character creation screen, we have a lot to ponder here. One thing I noticed on looking back was how firmly these opening lines centre our attention on Commander Shepard and the kind of person they are. We only hear about the galactic threat in vague terms.

This is an interesting approach compared to something like the opening crawl of Star Wars: A New Hope, which focuses most of its initial text on the galactic chaos springing forth and only offers a name, and a more personal focus, at the very end, with the mention of Princess Leia Organa. We start zoomed out, then zoom in, as opposed to the beginning of Mass Effect, where we zoom out only after being introduced to Commander Shepard as the primary focus.

This opening sets the scene while raising questions we can’t help craving answers to. What kind of person is Shepard, to be put forth as the defender of the galaxy? How can one person stand up to such a massive force? And what in the world is going on?

I’d forgotten until revisiting the beginning of Mass Effect how stellar it is at introducing questions and ideas that reverberate through the entire series. Exactly how it unfolds depends on the player, but Mass Effect is an inspiring saga of one person’s fight to lead the galaxy against a seemingly unstoppable threat, and it all circles around to one undeniable fact: Shepard is exactly the unstoppable force the galaxy needs to push back.

How does this all add up?

What this all comes down to is that, yes, first lines are absolutely important, not just for seeking publication but from an engaging storytelling standpoint.

On top of that, I think a poorly thought out first line is a missed opportunity. (“Big mistake. Big. Huge!” as Julia Roberts’ Vivian would say if she were one of our beta readers.)

First lines have the potential to set the tone for everything that follows, like a wink and a nudge from author to reader, subconsciously cluing them in to what’s important.

Personally, I find it easier to focus on crafting a stellar first line in revisions than in a rough draft. By that point, I should have a better idea of what’s important and where I’d like to draw the reader’s attention, so it’s oodles easier to figure out what to do with my story’s precious first breath.

Where do we go from here?

To recap, we’ve looked at first lines that emphasise:/p>

  • a core relationship
  • setting and tone
  • the main theme
  • the protagonist

Something they all have in common is focus.

The more you try and accomplish with first lines, the more diluted the effect. A story’s first line can’t wear every hat in the millinery.

Which hat do you choose for your first line? That depends ...

Do you know the heart of your story? The fire at its core? What brings you dancing to the page?

First Steps for First Lines

First, write down the heart of your story at the top of a page. Make sure it’s succinct and clear, something you could explain to someone in a few sentences.

Now it’s time to brainstorm! Underneath where you’ve jotted down the heart of the story, start writing answers to these questions (skipping any that feel completely irrelevant, but do give it a go if you’re unsure!):

Which settings in the story world exemplify this heart, for better or worse?

Which characters in the story world exemplify this heart, for better or worse?

Which emotion(s) would my ideal reader feel on understanding the heart of the story?

Which emotion(s) would my ideal reader feel on seeing the heart of the story threatened?

Which sensory details come to mind (e.g. colours, textures, sounds, scents) when I think of the heart of the story?

As always, these are just suggestions, so feel free to tweak the questions, turn them upside-down, or use them solely as jump-off points! Whatever works for you and your creative process.

Once you've written down a plethora of observations about the heart of your story, look back at what you’ve included. Cross out anything that don’t excite or at least intrigue you. For whatever is left, start playing with possibilities. What you're looking for here are idea nuggets for your first line(s), creative morsels that can be shaped into something succinct and expressive. If some of your ideas feel weak on their own, can you combine two or three into something more fulsome?

Say, for example, the heart of your story is the bond between a woman in her mid-twenties and her preteen brother. You might have written down things like "haggard stuffed rabbit (a beloved toy passed down from one to the other)", "monsters under the bed," "moved a lot", "comforting", and "nervous".

On their own, maybe it's hard to imagine how one of these could make for a compelling first line. Combine a few, though, and you could end up with something special. Maybe the sister used the stuffed rabbit to scare away the monsters under her little brother's bed whenever they moved to a new house. A line or two involving this idea already conveys a lot about the bond between the siblings - aka the heart of your story.

To take it a step further, consider what kind of an impression you want to leave on the reader after they've read the first line(s).

Do you want the reader to feel comforted? Perhaps the sister is reminiscing about the bunny while she's en route to her brother's acting debut in a school play.

Do you want the reader to feel forlorn? Perhaps the sister has found the bunny in a "donate" box.

Do you want the reader to feel determined? Perhaps the brother is studying for the hardest math test ever and he's quizzing himself under the watchful eye of the bunny on the desk beside him.

None of this is an exact science and you may want to refine this further in future, perhaps after some beta reader feedback or studying other first lines. Consider this an exploration phase, if you like! You can even return to the first line once you've decided on the one that closes out the story and craft them so as to echo the end in the beginning and vice versa.

Remember, you only need to focus on one thing in your first line to make a strong first impression. If it feels complicated, have a look to see if you've accidentally slipped an extra focus or two in there.

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