Every good novel contains a mystery at its core—emotional, practical, psychological, etc. A story’s opening line serves to give clues as to the nature of that mystery.
It also creates a “covenant” between the author and the reader, promising the latter that the trust he or she places in the author is well-spent.
A potent first line/first paragraph works to establish:
CENTRAL AND PERIPHERAL CONFLICTS
If the author doesn’t make good on all that he/she has promised in the story’s opening, the reader will likely finish the book feeling dissatisfied and misled.
CONSIDER THESE FIRST LINES:
“Marley was dead: to begin with.” – Charles Dickens, A CHRISTMAS CAROL
“It was a pleasure to burn.” – Ray Bradbury, FAHRENHEIT 451
“For more than two-hundred years, the Owen women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in town.” – Alice Hoffman, PRACTICAL MAGIC
“Once upon a time there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.” – Anne Tyler, BACK WHEN WE WERE GROWNUPS
“She would never forgive herself for not being there when her son was born.” – Sheila Finch, INFINITY’S WEB
“Woman’s on bed, and bed’s on fire." – Don Winslow, CALIFORNIA FIRE AND LIFE
At its most basic level, an effective opening must elicit QUESTIONS from the reader. It must pique curiosity and create a tension that the reader will feel compelled to assuage via reading.
It might do that by presenting a compelling, unsettling situation. Or it may do that by introducing a subtle emotional tension. But, always, a great opening line creates a stirring in the reader, an anxiety—either mild or pronounced—that promises only to be alleviated by continued movement down the page.
What’s your first line? What kind of promises does it make? If someone were to read only that one line—or that first paragraph—what would they expect from your book? And do you deliver on that expectation?
Share your first line in the comments, if you like! We’d love to read!