How to Start A Novel: First Sentence

I’ve been doing a lot of critique recently and have been thinking a lot about the novel first line. Not just opening paragraphs and pages (we just did a workshop series on that, check it out by clicking on the workshop tag), but first lines in particular. To drive the point home, check out this post that highlights what a successful story opening line looks like. Before you do that, though, here’s the note I’ve been giving out most often in my critiques, and it’s something for you to think about:

This could be the first line to any book.

novel first line, opening line
Sooo many novel first lines…does your stand out from the crowd?

When do I give this note? When I read a novel first line and don’t immediately understand something specific about a character or a world. When it really could go anywhere from the novel first line and make sense. This is a possibility when the novel first line is general enough, lacking detail, overly philosophical, or focused on description instead of character or action. The novel first line is, in a word, vague.

Example of Vague Novel First Line

It was the summer before everything changed.

It’s a pretty okay novel first line, by most standards. There’s tension implied — we are about to see a change, and change usually brings conflict with it. The reader also knows more than, we suppose, the characters, because we know there will be change, but it hasn’t happened in the plot yet. Not bad. I wouldn’t kick this novel first line out of slush.

But it could be stronger. For example, let’s give it the vague test. Could it be the opening line to any story? Yes. Let’s take a look. It could be a…

Sci-Fi Opening Line

It was the summer before everything changed. Back when the Zorlots were still in control of the ship, and the clones had yet to run amok.

Western Opening Line

It was the summer before everything changed. Before that yeller-bellied Winchester rolled on into town.

Romance Opening Line

It was the summer before everything changed. The count hadn’t yet seduced Mistress Nancy and quite literally lost his head.

I think you get it. (And by “it,” here, I mean you get that I can’t really write genre to save my yeller-bellied hide.) It’s a strong opening line, but is it your first line? A distinctive, specific novel first line that can only be the first line to your book and no other? That’s what I think you should be shooting for.

When you hire me as your children’s book editor, I’ll give you feedback on all aspects of your story: from the overall plot to the nitty-gritty of your story opening line.

29 Replies to “How to Start A Novel: First Sentence”

  1. Another insightful post. Thanks, Mary.

  2. Thanks. I hadn’t thought of general as a bad thing. And the example you gave is actually a pretty common one to my mind.

  3. That’s a really (I mean REALLY) excellent point. And your response – “That could be the first line to *any* book” – is a great way to clarify the real issue behind a first line that doesn’t grab.

    As an example of a GOOD first line I thought I’d offer the one from the novel I’m currently reading, because it’s along the same lines as “It was the summer everything changed”, but it has two distinct things that that sentence doesn’t — (a) clarity – it *can’t* be the first line to *any* book, and (b) voice voice voice. From WILD ROSES by Deb Caletti (which is amazing and you all should read it, just saying):

    “To say my life changed when my mother married Dino Cavalli (yes, *the* Dino Cavalli) would be like saying that the tornado changed things for Dorothy.”

    Love. 😀

    Thank you for this, Mary! Looking forward to Part 2.

  4. ‘Let me introduce myself. I’m an Idiot.’

    ‘My father was dead. I just wished he’d stop talking to me.’

    One of these I haven’t used yet. One of these, some people may _wish_ I hadn’t used yet :-).

    Sometimes the logic works. Sometimes – well, if I knew the secret to the other times, I’d be rich and famous. Or at least have an Agent :-).


    ‘Call me Ishmael.’
    Could it be the start to any book? Yup. And yet it has a reputation for being one of the most memorable intro hooks ever.

    ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.’
    could not only be the beginning of any book at all, it would likely these days be the first victim of an editor’s pen. Sentences this long are, I think, against the Geneva Convention. Or maybe should be. But ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ didn’t suffer much for it :-).

    I suppose the answer, if there was a question, is that we’re not all Charles Dickens, and we don’t all write ‘Moby Dick’. And for the rest of us, a good first line, one that isn’t a candidate for the ‘any book list’ is probably a good idea :-).

  5. I’ve been reading a lot of lame first lines recently, and will be blogging about it. I hope it’s okay that I link to this post???

  6. After reading the first page of my PB, my grandson looked me in the eye and said, “BO-ring!”

    I wasn’t surprised. Deep inside, I kinda knew. Still that old feeling of giving up washed over me.

    But not so fast! LOL! You have pointed out my exact problem..

    My first line ~ Aw man, it’s raining again~ could be any story. It’s totally vague and generic.

    I’ve already hit delete. Now I will put on my safety goggles and focus my laser beam on rewriting page one…

    This is my first visit to your blog… thanks for being here!

  7. Lydia, that’s an AWESOME first line! I really want to read that book now!

    The first line from HOW TO SAY GOODBYE IN ROBOT by Natalie Standiford is genius:

    “Goebbels materialized on the back patio, right before we moved to Baltimore, and started chewing through the wicker love seat.”

    I burst into laughter in a crowded mall food court when I first read it… and I was alone so I looked extra crazy. It’s that good 🙂

  8. I don’t know, I had to read it a couple times to get what it was saying. I feel like there’s two settings introduced at once, and I had to think a few seconds too long to figure out what was chewing the love seat.

    Then for the previous example, I didn’t know who Dino Cavalli was, so it fell flat for me. =/ I found the sentence a little confusing as well… Perhaps I was expecting something different at the end.

    I often like first lines that get to the point–a lot of times authors seem to try to put too much in their first sentence.

  9. Great example of how not to write a vague first line! Do you have an example for a vague PB first line? I’d love to see an example of that also 🙂

  10. @Cholisose: I’m pretty sure Dino Cavalli is a made-up person, and that first line gives us the impression that he is a Big Deal (in capitals!). As for Goebbels… that line is hilarious if you know your history 😛

    Maybe that is a risk you take, though, if you use names or references in your first line. Good to keep in mind.

  11. Great point!

    First lines can be really tough to get right. A precarious balance between both grounding and hooking the reader.

    The Deb Caletti first line is fantastic.

  12. Well, dang. There I was, thinking I was special. 🙂

  13. I’ve never commented before, instead choosing to skulk about in the shadows like a creepy plankton feeding off your wisdom, but this post excites me.

    That’s not my first line, it’s just a fact.

    Vague wording was something I really struggled with when I started out to write Ze Book. It was the most common comment I got–that something I’d written could be for any book or could have been written by any author. Oh, the shame. I believe the reasoning behind killing my own style by lacing it with gray and blah was that by doing so I could appeal to the masses, the every day Johns, the readers of magazines like “OK” and “We Could Be Anybody.”

    I like to think I’ve shaken myself free from that funk. I’d also like to think it’s something that all of my fellow first-time-nobody-author-hopefuls go through.

    Anyhow, here is the first line of Ze Book:

    “From the day of my birth to the night I came in contact with Clover Leaf Investigations, I only really mattered to one person.”

  14. Were it not for me, you, your loved ones, your friends, all of humanity would be dead.

    This discussion has prompted me to ponder how proper my first line is. I think I will create a collection then pole my alpha and beta readers as to which one they think has the most potential.

  15. Ok, I just re-read this blog post, re-read my opening line, and knocked out the first two sentences. And this was AFTER I submitted the first 10 pages to Mary. Mary – if you see this, IGNORE THE FIRST TWO LINES! 🙂

  16. Cornelius says:

    “The Ophius was no longer recognisable, even to itself.”

    This is my revised first line. It may not be the final. Major manuscript revision in process (not the first and probably not the last) and this makes so much sense. Working on weeding out the parts that dont really add value to the pace and plot. You have to break something down to built it up again, right?

    Thanks Mary!

  17. Very enlightening. Great way of showing how important it is to have a unique and specific-to-your-book first line.


  18. Gail Shepherd says:

    I’ve also heard it said that great first lines embody everything in the story to come in microcosm: particularly the major themes.

  19. “It’s a strong line, but is it your first line? A distinctive, specific first line that can only be the first line to your book and no other? That’s what I think you should be shooting for.” – This is such helpful advice Mary, thanks! I’ve been happy with my first line with a while now, but looking at it once more, it doesn’t reflect the flavor of my book *enough* I think. I’m off to rework, try to bring more of a YA Horror feel into the mix 😀

  20. Ahhh, I’ve been agonizing and rewriting my first line and first chapter over and over. This was a great post. I think my first line is somewhere in the middle. It could be used to describe some other books but it’s also a set-up for what’s to come. Now I don’t know whether to change it or keep it. Oh the agony.

  21. Ahhh, I’ve been agonizing and rewriting my first line and first chapter over and over. This was a great post. I think my first line is somewhere in the middle. It could be used to describe some other books but it’s also a set-up for what’s to come. Now I don’t know whether to change it or keep it. Oh the agony. 🙂

  22. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

    This too could be any book. But we know it as one of the great first lines of all time.

    Mary, you DO make a good point. And you should know, being the receiver and possible seller of the subbed stories. But we who conjure them might consider not taking this GOOD advice as another absolute ‘rule’ of great writing.
    I’m a fan of great first sentences myself, and most of my stories begin with the line coming to my door and tapping…

  23. Mary,
    Some say that editing begins by removing the first few paragraphs you wrote down and get straight to the action.
    You went one step further, remove those paragraphs – an lines -0 before even writing them 🙂

  24. Karen Staman says:

    Some first lines hit you with the tone, the voice, the location and the problem all at once. Like they have summed up the entire book in one first line.

    From Charlotte’s Web: “Where’s Papa going with that ax?”

    From Because of Winn-dixie: “My name is India Opal Buloni, and last summer my daddy, the preacher, sent me to the store for a box of macaroni-and-cheese, some white rice, and two tomatoes and I came back with a dog.”

    From the hobbit: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”

    These are so dead on it is humbling. Here is my first line from my WIP: “When I’m talking to someone, I am supposed to look them in the eyes, hold their gaze and count to five, but it is easier to look away and listen for the earthworms.”

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