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What makes a memorable first line?

Updated on October 8, 2013

The first words

What makes an amazing first line? I think it's a habit to open a book and read the first line before someone buys a book. We want to find something that will grab our attention, that will suck us in, and that will make us want to keep reading. Some of the most famous classic novels are famous because their first lines have stuck with us over the years. We hear them again and again, and may not know where they came from, but they're famous for living years upon years in our minds.

Take for example something that has become so famous that it's almost a mockery:

"It was a dark and stormy night..."

This phrase was conjured up by an English Victorian Novelist and is now used to symbolize a melodramatic style of writing. I believe that it is so overused that it's original statement is now useless. No one really wants to read a story that is going to start out with something that is so run-of-the-mill. But maybe it can be amped up, to take on a whole new meaning, and make a whole new imprint in the world of literature.

There is a need to make sure your first sentence is memorable and sets the tone to your whole novel. If it doesn't catch anyone's attention then the rest of your writing is null and void. Why not add more to the setting?

Adding a setting

"It was a dark and stormy night outside the old barn..."

Now we've added more of a setting, there's a better picture inside the head of the reader but there's a need to take it further, I can't believe anyone would want to read more, and neither would I.

"It was a dark and stormy night outside the old barn and as the lightning strikes illuminate through the window, there were two shadows to be seen..."

Now there seems to be more of a spark, an introduction of some characters, and a need to know what the dark and stormy night might be hiding.

"It was a dark and stormy night outside the barn and as the lightning strikes illuminate through the window, there were two shadows to be seen, one of them was holding a blood-soaked knife and the other one was no longer moving."

Make them read more

It's about making the reader want to read more. A person needs to be drawn into the story immediately in order to be successful but I think every bad first line has the ability to be amazing. As a writer it is important to set the scene, introduce a character (or two), and let the reader know what the conflict is within the story. While you can take an entire novel to do these three things, introducing them immediately will make a reader want to know more. Being able to bring forth the conflict (or even a love interest, or a happy memory, something that will tie into the entire story) will immediately let the reader know what they have to look forward to, and if this book is for them.

First lines are often the hardest to write, as are the last lines, but that's another post all together. It is within these first few words that your entire novel lies. It is terrifying to know that thousands of words can all be based on a few words in the very beginning. The first line is sink or swim so there's a point to making sure it is perfect.

There are different ways to start a novel:
-you can introduce any fact of life, any statement that a reader may be able to relate to, which brings them closer to the characters you've developed.
-you can introduce a statement to create a voice for your main character, allowing the first words being read to bring them into the mind that you want the reader to know.
-you can introduce a statement to set the mood, using the words to set the tone for the rest of the novel, whether it be ominous, or scary, or happy, or sad..anything
-you can use a generic statement that will state exactly what is about to be read, such as the class "once upon a time", you could introduce your story to any reader by saying "the following pages of this novel are the deep secrets of the mistresses journal" (obviously in better wording...but the example makes it point.)

There are certain guidelines you can use to start your novel and hook your reader in. I choose to be creative though. I enjoy finding myself in a dark room, surrounded by silence, and just letting my words flow because there's no way to find the story in your head if there are other voices ringing in and out of it. Know yourself, know your characters inside and out, and know how to grab your reader. That first line says it all...

Do you know which famous novels these first lines are from?

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    • ytsenoh profile image

      Cathy 4 years ago from Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, Missouri

      I like how you took the beginnings of your "dark and stormy night" and marrying it with other words to generate a nice visual too! I would agree that the first line is vital to keeping the reader's attention. I, too, enjoyed your quiz even though I was quite dreadful with it! Now, you should write a hub about the value of the title! Good job.

    • profile image

      writersandwich 4 years ago

      I think one of the most important aspects to the first line is the form that is being worked with. If the story is a short story and if it is a "fantastical" story with an "absurdist" conceit, that absurdity should be introduced automatically in the first line. If the piece is intended to be longer, setting is usually a good place to start, and from there, a "slow-pan" (forgive the film term) to the protagonist.

      I think one of the greatest first lines ever written was by Mark Z. Danielewski in his book House of Leaves: "This is not for you."

      : ) Cool hub. I liked the quiz.