Why Your Novel’s First Line Is Critical (And How to Make It Count)

novel first line

Your Novel’s First Line is Critical

You know when you grab a book, read that very first line, and BAM — you’re hooked? Yup, that’s what we’re talking about. That first line is like a secret handshake, inviting you into the story, meeting the author’s voice, and hanging out with those cool characters.

“First sentences are doors to worlds,” Ursula Le Guin: The Fisherwoman’s Daughter

If you’re struggling with how to start a novel, reel everything back in and give some more thought to your great opening. While it’s true to say the book cover, title, and blurb of your book are vital for making sales, it’s the first line of a novel that will get your readers invested. It’s the reader’s first impression of the story, the author’s voice, and the characters they’re going to follow throughout the book. 

Picture this. A snazzy first line that pulls you in, sets the vibe, and shows off your unique voice. That’s the ticket! But a not-so-great opening line? It might just send readers packing before the party even starts.

In this article, I’m going to explore the role of the first line in a novel, discuss some of the best opening lines of novels of all time, and offer tips and techniques for crafting a memorable and effective opening line for your own novel.

Whether you’re a seasoned writer or just starting, understanding the importance of the first line can help you create a powerful and engaging opening that will keep readers hooked until the very end.

The Role of the First Line

The first line of a novel can play a pivotal role in setting the tone and mood of the story. It’s the reader’s first impression of the world they’re about to enter and can give them a sense of the novel’s themes, style, and voice.

A great opening line can immediately draw the reader in, piquing their curiosity and making them eager to learn more. It can also establish your style and voice, conveying your unique perspective and approach to storytelling. All of these factors make the first line a critical element in a novel’s success.

Elements of a Strong Opening Line

While it’s no secret your novel will succeed (or fail) based on your ability to craft compelling characters, it’s your opening line that will drag readers in. So what’s the secret recipe for a brilliant first line? Well, there are a few key ingredients: 

  • Clarity: Being clear as a bell
  • Voice: Having a voice that stands out
  • Intrigue: Stirring up some curiosity.

Mix ’em all together, and you’ve got yourself a winner! Now, let’s break that down a bit.


So, why is clarity a big deal, you ask? Simple! Our readers need to know the who, the where, and the when to really get cozy with the story. No one wants to be lost in the woods, right? Let’s help them feel right at home!


Voice is also crucial, as it can convey the author’s style, tone, and attitude toward their subject matter. It’s that magical touch that brings the author’s style, tone, and feelings about the story to life. Think of it as the cherry on top — you can’t have a perfect sundae without it, right?


Now, about intrigue. It’s the driving force that keeps readers glued to those pages, eager to uncover the mysteries ahead. It’s like a tantalizing maze your readers will be excited to navigate. Onward to adventure!

A great opening line can balance all of these elements, establishing the scene and characters while also drawing the reader in and leaving them eager to learn more. How? Well, here’s the approach I tend to use:

  • Top it off with Intrigue: Now, time for the pièce de résistance — curiosity! Drop a little hint or mystery to tickle your readers’ imagination. Keep them eager to find out what happens next.
  • Add some Voice: Next, sprinkle in your unique style and tone. Make your words sing with your personal touch. Remember, no one else can tell your story how you can, so let your voice shine.
  • Clarity first: Start with a clear, easy-to-understand idea. Make sure your readers know who’s who and what’s happening right off the bat. No need to leave ’em scratching their heads!

So, there you have it! With a pinch of Clarity, a dash of Voice, and a spoonful of Intrigue, you’ll have a recipe for a fantastic opening line. 

Some of the Best Opening Lines of Novels Ever

Certain opening lines in literature have become famous for their power and effectiveness. These lines can drag readers in (sometimes kicking and screaming) and make them feel immediately connected to the story and its characters. So let’s take a look at some of the most famous novels with the perfect opening line.

“The story so far: in the beginning, the universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.”

Isn’t that opening line a gem? It’s from The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams, and let me tell you, it’s a fabulous example of our golden trio: clarity, voice, and intrigue. Let’s break it down, shall we?

  • Clarity: The line gives us a clear starting point — the creation of the universe. We know the setting and get a sense of where we’re headed. No confusion here, just a straightforward intro.
  • Voice: Douglas Adams is known for his wit and humor, and this line is no exception. It showcases his unique, cheeky style that readers can’t help but adore. Talk about making a statement!
  • Intrigue: Now, this is where the magic happens. The line hints at some dissatisfaction with the universe’s creation and calls it “a bad move.” We’re left itching to find out why people are angry and what will happen next. There’s a reason why Adams is considered an absolute master and why this is one of the most popular and famous novels of all time.

Ok, so what about this one?

“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”

This opening line comes from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson. It’s another top-notch example of how clarity, voice, and intrigue work together like best buds. Let’s dive in and see how it checks all the boxes.

  • Clarity: We’ve got a location right here. “Somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert,” tells us we’re starting our journey in a specific place. We’re not left wandering, wondering where we are.
  • Voice: Hunter S. Thompson’s unique style shines through in this line. His raw, unfiltered voice grabs our attention and doesn’t let go. It’s a wild ride, and we’re here for it!
  • Intrigue: The moment we read, “when the drugs began to take hold,” our curiosity is piqued. What’s going to happen as the drugs take effect? We’re left eager to find out what unfolds next.

This opening line is a fantastic example of blending clarity, voice, and intrigue like a well-crafted cocktail. 

But what about thrillers? It’s my personal truism that you should always write in the genres you love, so if you’re writing in the mystery and thriller genres, pay attention to how your favorite thriller authors use their opening lines to hook you in. Crime and serial killer writers have a history of brilliant opening lines, so let’s take a look at some of those next.

“It was one hell of a night to throw away a baby.”

This isn’t just one of the most popular examples of the best opening lines of novels; it’s also one of the most haunting. This eye-catching opening line is from In the Bleak Midwinter by Julia Spencer-Fleming, and it’s another fabulous example of how clarity, voice, and intrigue come together in a winning combo. Let’s take it apart, shall we?

  • Clarity: The line sets the scene with a specific event — someone discarding a baby on a particular night. We know something significant is happening right from the start, and it gives us a clear focus.
  • Voice: Spencer-Fleming’s distinctive voice comes through with the casual yet impactful phrasing. It’s a bold way to open a story and sets the tone for what’s to come, making us eager to keep reading.
  • Intrigue: And, oh boy, does this line stir up curiosity! We can’t help but wonder: Why is someone throwing away a baby? What’s going on? The line hooks us and leaves us itching to unravel the mystery.

As an example of thriller writers delivering an opening line that haunts and entices, it’s hard to beat that one —although this next one is a contender!

“Winter came like an anarchist with a bomb.”

This incredible opening line comes from The Pusher by Ed McBain. Let’s put on our hardboiled detective hats and dissect this gem from one of the most famous novels in the thriller genre.

  • Clarity: The line sets the stage with a powerful image: the arrival of winter. It gives us a clear sense of time, letting us know when the story begins. We’re not left out in the cold, wondering what’s happening.
  • Voice: Ed McBain’s unique voice comes through with his bold choice of metaphor. Comparing winter to “an anarchist with a bomb” gives the line a distinctive flair, setting the tone for the rest of the story.
  • Intrigue: The curiosity this line sparks! We can’t help but wonder: Why is winter described so dramatically? What’s going to happen next? The line hooks us with its gripping imagery and leaves us eager to dive into the story.

“It was the day my grandmother exploded.”

What a great opener, and one of my favorites! This attention-grabbing line is from The Crow Road by Iain Banks. It’s another stellar example of how clarity, voice, and intrigue can join forces for an unforgettable first sentence.

  • Clarity: The line sets the scene by giving us a specific event — the narrator’s grandmother exploding. We know something significant and unusual is happening right off the bat.
  • Voice: Iain Banks’ unique voice shines through with the blunt, almost casual phrasing. It’s an unexpected way to start a story, quickly and easily sets the tone for what’s to come, and leaves us eager to read more.
  • Intrigue: And talk about stirring up curiosity! We can’t help but wonder why the grandmother exploded. What circumstances led to this bizarre event? The line hooks us and leaves us itching to unravel the mystery.

Crafting Unforgettable Opening Lines That’ll Hook ‘Em from the Start!

We’ve seen the magic of clarity, voice, and intrigue working in harmony to transform ordinary sentences into captivating hooks. It’s crystal clear that a great opener can pave the way for an extraordinary reading experience.

And hey, don’t just take my word for it. Explore your favorite famous novels in any genre, and rediscover their opening lines. You might just be surprised by how they’ve mastered the art of our golden trio. So, go on; delve into the literary treasures that await you, and get inspired!

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