First lines. Important? Or not?

I read a somewhat controversial blog post last week. Controversial in that I didn’t fully agree with some of the “lies” writers believe. One of those myths was the importance of first lines. Should a first line hook the reader?

I did agree with this writer in that many wonderful, superbly written books have first lines that are just so-so. And if we read or not read a book based on the first line, we might miss a lot of great books.

As a writer trying to catch the interest of an agent, then editor, then masses of people – why wouldn’t you put effort into making your first line the best it could be?

Reasons to write a terrific first line: (Or query letter, or first page, first chapter, for that matter – the whole book!)

  • A great first line shows the writer worked hard. And most likely will lead to an excellent first page and first chapter.
  • After a great first line, you’ve already pulled the reader to your side.
  • A great first line shows the writer is in control of their craft. (I have yet to read a book with a terrific first line that wasn’t well written the whole way through.)
  • In a world of Kindle samples, you don’t want to give the reader a reason not to pick your book.
  • In a world where agents read 50 queries or sample pages in a row, a great first line will go a long way.

Tips for a terrific first line:

  • It is not a gimmick.
  • It should fit with the tone and style of your story.
  • It should raise a question in the reader’s mind.
  • It should not be too long or confusing or misleading.
  • It should reflect your story whether it’s a mystery or a comedy or a drama.
  • It should reflect the voice of your character or your story.

Trouble shooting if you can’t seem to nail that opening line:

  • Maybe, possibly, you are starting in the wrong place.
  • Maybe your first scene is really a sequel.
  • Maybe you don’t have enough conflict or tension in your opening scene.
  • Maybe your inciting incident isn’t in your first scene.
  • Maybe you are trying too hard and forcing it.
  • Just like with everything else in writing – the first line is just as hard. But just as important.

So, do you agree or disagree with the importance placed on first lines these days? Should your first line hook the reader you are targeting? How do beginner writers misinterpret this?

37 Responses to First lines. Important? Or not?

  1. Andrea February 7, 2011 at 11:30 am #

    I think a strong first line is important, but the rest of the paragraph, page, or chapter needs to be just as strong. There isn’t much point in have a killer first line if the rest of the paragraph…or story is hum-drum. On the other hand, it’s part of the first impression of your story for an agent or editor.

  2. Misha February 7, 2011 at 11:50 am #

    I agree that the first line should be important.

    On the other hand. I have read books where people spent hours refining the first line that should have gone into getting the story in order.

    It is much more annoying that reading a flubbed first line.


    • Laura February 7, 2011 at 11:56 am #

      Andrea and Misha – I agree. The importance of the first line shouldn’t trump having the entire manuscript polished and your best work. I think that seems to happen with the whole opening too. And maybe at times beginners take that “rule” to extreme and have a first line that is totally wrong for their manuscript.

  3. Sheri Larsen February 7, 2011 at 12:55 pm #

    The first line is very important. It sets the tone, stage, and initial seeds to lure the reader to want more. Saying that, the rest of the paragraph and chapter must be steller too. I’m a huge fan of ‘toss the reader directly into the fire’ right off. Expo, backstory, and slowing the pace a bit can come later.

  4. christine danek February 7, 2011 at 1:51 pm #

    First lines are important. I like your statement that it should pose a question. So true. If I question it, I want to read on to know the answer. Thanks I gotta go work on some first lines. 🙂

  5. Stina Lindenblatt February 7, 2011 at 1:51 pm #

    I think the first line is important. As is every line after that. More so when it’s part of sample pages. While I doubt an agent is going to stop reading if the first sentence isn’t great, it might just cloud their judgement. But if the next sentence also doesn’t sparkle the agent might not bother with the third one before sending the rejection.

    • Laura February 7, 2011 at 2:04 pm #

      Stina – A writer def. can’t craft a great first line and then forget the rest. The whole ms needs to sparkle.

      Christine – Me too. I constantly work on my first lines and pages – just like my query!

      Sheri – I love when a first line sets the tone and lures me in! Even so, excellent telling can do the trick too – for me anyway.

  6. Creepy Query Girl February 7, 2011 at 2:08 pm #

    I think they’re definitely important. Getting them just right is always a challenge but you’ve got a great criteria list up there!

  7. Kelly Polark February 7, 2011 at 3:28 pm #

    I do think you shouldn’t base a book on the first line. There are excellent books out there with so-so lines.
    But first lines do intrigue me. You should try and make it awesome! And if you are looking for an agent, they only get a certain amount of pages, so a first line is even more important then.

  8. Quinn February 7, 2011 at 3:45 pm #

    Everybody’s pretty much already said it … the first line is important (I agree with you on all the reasons you gave), but the first paragraph, page, chapter and all that is important too.

  9. Lydia K February 7, 2011 at 3:49 pm #

    Forcing a good line is always something that bothers me. To be honest, I prefer a spectacular first paragraph. Sometime the true hook is that last sentence in the paragraph, not the first one.
    My two cents!

    • Laura February 7, 2011 at 5:13 pm #

      Lydia – So true! Very often the hook is at the end of the first paragraph!

      Quinn – Yes, all of it is important – even the middle and ending! 🙂

      Kelly – We’ve seen to many agents tweet about how the first paragraph didn’t interest them to not make an effort!

      Katie – All of writing is a challenge! 🙂

  10. T. Anne February 7, 2011 at 5:27 pm #

    This is great. I spend so much time on my opening lines and still some of them tend to fall flat. I really need to figure out how to nail this. Thanks for the tips!!!

  11. Jennifer Hoffine February 7, 2011 at 6:26 pm #

    You’re so right. As a reader, the first line doesn’t have to be important (they rarely stand out to me), but as an unknown writer trying to catch the attention of an agent or editor, they are majorly important.

    All this is great advice, but I think fitting with the tone and voice of the book is most important. A first line should draw you into the story…or plunge you in if that fits for the tone and voice of the book.

    Finally, I’d say don’t sweat the first line or chapter of the book until the rough draft is done as (from my experience, anyway) they are the things that are most likely to change along the way.

  12. Patti February 7, 2011 at 6:27 pm #

    I do believe the first line is important in that it helps hook the readers, but I’ve read some lately where they try so hard to be shocking that it turns me off. Sometimes it’s nice to be guided into a world as opposed to forced in.

    • Laura February 7, 2011 at 7:30 pm #

      Patti – and that might be exactly what the writer of the blog post I was referring to was talking about. How some writers take the first sentence overboard.

      Jennifer – Along with my query, I think it’s something I come back to through out the whole process because I need more than a week to polish a query or a first chapter.

      T. Anne – Some of mine fall flat too!

  13. Angela Felsted February 7, 2011 at 8:09 pm #

    I hate writing openings with a passion even though I know a good opening can keep almost anyone reading. Which is why I spend so much time on mine just to erase them again and again and again. Maybe one of these days I will get it right.

  14. Leigh Moore February 7, 2011 at 8:41 pm #

    oh, I agree so much. But at the same time, I try not to fret about it too much–at least in the beginning. Or I get all blocked and that just sux. 😀 Thanks, Laura~

  15. Jennifer Shirk February 7, 2011 at 9:18 pm #

    I think a good opening line is important, but I don’t think it has to be the end all be all. (I say this because mine are…okay) LOL

    But seriously, an opening line is your first invite to the reader so it should kind of set the tone for the book.

  16. Carolina Valdez Miller February 7, 2011 at 9:54 pm #

    You know, I’ve read some superb first lines for books not yet written and for books that were just kind of eh…okay, and for books that really just were not enjoyable. It’s sort of the same thing with a brilliant first chapter. Sometimes, it’s a great idea, great beginning, and then everything just sort of falls apart. So while a first line/chapter can really hook you, it’s the books itself that will determine a reader’s opinion. The first line should definitely set the tone for the book, as well as the reader’s expectations! The same goes for a query. Sometimes a query could be written so well it’ll get a high request rate, but then get rejection after rejection because the manuscript just doesn’t meet the expectations set by the query.

    On that note, you can have a great book with a so-so first line/chapter/query, which is fine, but may lose readers and keep them from finding out how great the story itself really is…

  17. Karen Strong February 7, 2011 at 9:57 pm #

    I think so many people focus on polishing up those first few chapters and then it all sort of gets muddled by the middle. Totally agree with the other commenters about focusing on the whole story instead of just one sentence.

    But first lines are important. Especially these days and you give some excellent tips. I think the days of the “slow fall in love” phase is over for today’s readers. They want immediate engrossment. Love at first sight.

    So yeah, first lines are important, but so is the rest of the book.

    Usually first lines can’t be written until the last line is finished.

  18. Marcia February 7, 2011 at 10:02 pm #

    As I reader, I care more about the first page as a whole than the first sentence.

    Some first sentences strike me as too gimmicky.

    I’ve heard agents and editors say that one common fault in requested fulls is that the whole book isn’t as well written as the first three chapters, or the first chapter, or the first five pages. I wouldn’t be surprised if writers work those to death because they’ve heard how important that is, but then start submitting before it’s ALL been worked that hard.

  19. Heidi Willis February 7, 2011 at 10:19 pm #

    First lines are so important, but that doesn’t mean someone has to die or something explode in it. I think that’s the impression so many people give when they say it has to grab a reader’s attention, but really, it just needs to be well written and, like you said, maybe raise a question in a reader’s mind. Or raise possibilities.

    I heard a magazine editor read some first lines last week, and one was just a girl sitting licking Dorito dust off her fingers when a boy turns to her and says, “Hey, I know a club downtown where they don’t card.” So simple, nothing big, but boy is it rife with possibilities! 🙂

  20. Alexander Bennon February 8, 2011 at 12:46 am #

    From what I’ve heard and read, it seems like the main audience for the first line is the agent or editor—the ones who decide whether your novel will ever sit on the bookstore shelf.

    I think readers are a bit more forgiving, like others have mentioned here, but agents and editors are flooded with hopefuls and have to get through piles of submissions. They seem a little more demanding of the immediate hook than readers are. That’s just my perception.

    Thanks for a great post. I agree that the first sentence shouldn’t be massaged to the exclusion of the rest of the piece.

    • Laura February 8, 2011 at 1:05 am #

      Great comments everyone! Thanks! I think we’ve pretty much all come to the same conclusion. Great stuff here.

  21. Botanist February 8, 2011 at 2:13 am #

    I think some of the difficulty in answering this question lies in who we imagine we are when we’re answering it.

    As a reader, I don’t require the first line to hook me. All I ask is that it is appropriate to the story and that it doesn’t actively turn me off. I usually give a book a page or so to decide whether or not I’m hooked, but I’ll return it to the shelf a lot quicker if something turns me off.

    That is my view as a reader. But if you are asking “is the first line important to getting your work accepted by an agent or publisher?” well, I think that’s been answered to death.

  22. Laura February 8, 2011 at 2:17 am #

    Great point, Botanist. For me, as a reader, I give it more than the first line! 🙂 I’ll read through the first part.

    But, from the opening, I can usually tell if I’m going to love a book. And that’s totally subjective.

  23. Susan Kaye Quinn February 8, 2011 at 2:36 am #

    Great post! I have a quirky first line in every paragraph in my latest MS – just part of the style of that particular story, not something I would necessarily recommend.

    I don’t have a great need for a phenomenal first line – either as a reader or a writer. I need something that will draw me in.

  24. Lisa Green February 8, 2011 at 3:15 am #

    I think you outline the perfect reasons as to why you should have a good first line. For me, the first line really sets off my mood and energy as well while I’m actually writing. Of course it could change later, but you know what? Usually that’s one thing that stays. And why be lazy? Ever? Why not try your best to make EVERY line perfect?

  25. Glynis Jolly February 8, 2011 at 11:59 am #

    Actually, I think the “1st line” is a little severe. When I look for a book to read, I read the entire 1st page. If nothing grabs me, I put it back.

  26. Susan R. Mills February 8, 2011 at 3:05 pm #

    First lines are important, no doubt. But, I’ve yet to stop reading a book just because the first line didn’t instantly grab me. I think overall the first scene has to grab. If you don’t do it by then, well you’ve lost me.

  27. Julie Musil February 8, 2011 at 9:50 pm #

    Laura, these are such great points. I fret over the first lines, now that I know how important they are. I don’t always judge a book by those first lines. I’d say the first chapter has to grab me. As a writer, I’m trying my darndest to make those lines stand out.

  28. Abby Annis February 8, 2011 at 10:20 pm #

    There are definitely great books out there with so-so first lines, but I agree with you. Why not make your first line the best it can be? Anything to grab your reader sooner can only be a good thing. Great post! 🙂

  29. Tere Kirkland February 8, 2011 at 10:22 pm #

    I’ll go out on a limb and say that if you’re first sentence isn’t a “grabber”, your first paragraph better be.

    First lines can be tricky. You’ve got a lot to do if you want to establish voice and scene and give a hint of what’s to come. So I say if the first paragraph accomplishes this in a way that draws the reader in, then it’s a success.

  30. Terri Tffany February 8, 2011 at 10:37 pm #

    What is strange is I believe it is very important and try hard to work at mine, but when I check the first lines out of books in a bookstore, I am amazed at how so non-exciting they are:)

  31. Jill Kemerer February 8, 2011 at 10:37 pm #

    Some of my first lines are soooo bad. I tried to cram everything and a bag of chips in there. The results were ugly.

    I do think the first sentence is important but not in a “look at me” way. Like you said, it should draw the reader into the story. I work very hard on mine.

  32. becca puglisi February 9, 2011 at 2:20 am #

    I think a great first line is always a good thing. But it’s not necessity to a great novel. I definitely agree with your point that the first line of a book should reflect the rest of the story. People often try so hard to make the first line so catchy that it comes off as forced, or they end up coming up with a truly great opener that the rest of the novel doesn’t measure up to. If you’re going to put that much effort into your first line, you should make sure you’ve put as much effort into the rest of the story.

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