A few weeks ago, in my post on writing engaging first pages, I discussed the importance of hooking your reader within the opening pages and shared several memorable first lines from published novels. Today, I’d like to take a closer look at some opening lines and discuss what makes them work. We know that a great first line hooks the reader immediately, but what makes a great first line? How do you hook a reader in only one sentence?
There are several techniques to consider in your opening, including: raise a question, hint at conflict, have great voice, and have great impact. What does this mean? Let’s take a look at some examples:
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
–1984 by George Orwell
This classic first sentence is a great example of my first two points—raising a question and hinting at conflict. The question is obvious—how can a clock strike thirteen? But there’s also something quite ominous about the use of thirteen, specifically, that creates a sense of foreboding. Although we don’t yet know what kind of world we’ve landed in, we can guess that it won’t be a pleasant one. This line not only piques the reader’s interest by asking questions and suggesting conflict, but also establishes a foreboding tone and hints at the novel’s setting.
“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.”
–The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Again, we have a line that both raises intriguing questions and hints at conflict. The questions are obvious—why is the other side of the bed cold? Who is expected to be there? And the very idea of a cold, empty bed is immediately ominous.
“We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.”
–Feed by M.T. Anderson
There are several things happening in this line. Once again we see questions being raised (Why did the moon suck? Who went there and how? Why did they expect it to be fun?) as well as hints of conflict (The moon was supposed to be fun, but wasn’t.). But what I find most striking about this line is the voice. It’s not hard to guess that the narrator is a teenage boy just from reading this sentence. Also, as with the opening line of 1984, we’re getting hints at the setting here as well, even if we don’t yet know exactly what kind of world this is.
“My father took one hundred and thirty-two minutes to die.”
–On Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta
This sentence is a great example of all four techniques: question, conflict, voice, and impact. I think the impact here is the most noticeable aspect. By impact, I mean something so striking that the reader cannot ignore it. The questions and conflict are also obvious—how does the father die? Why does the narrator count? The voice here is a little more subtle than, say, the line from Feed, but voice is definitely there as well. (If you don’t know what I mean, consider how many different ways this line could have been phrased. The syntax, the diction . . . all of these things create voice.)
“There is one mirror in my house.”
–Divergent by Veronica Roth
Once more we have a line that raises a question—why is there only one mirror? The hint of conflict here is much more subtle than some of the previous examples, but it’s still there as well. We don’t know why there’s only one mirror, but just the fact that we have to ask gives the reader the sense that something isn’t quite right here.
“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”
–Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling
Once again, questions and conflict. Why do the Dursleys feel it’s important for everyone to think they’re normal? The fact that they feel the need to say so indicates that they probably aren’t. Are they hiding something unusual? Also, note how different the voice is here from that of the other examples. It’s already very distinctive.
“It was a pleasure to burn.”
–Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
There are several techniques working here as well. The questions, conflict, and impact are all obvious. We might not have any idea what kind of world we’re in yet, but we can tell that something is very wrong. Why is it a pleasure to burn, and what is it that’s burning?
As you can see in these examples, there are many different approaches you can take to writing a great opening line. But raising questions, introducing conflict, establishing voice, and creating impact are all techniques that can grab your readers’ attention right away. And if you continue to utilize these techniques in every sentence, you’ll have a book that your reader can’t put down!
What are your favorite first lines? What techniques do they use to hook the reader? Are you using these techniques in your own writing? Let me know in the comments!
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