editing / writers resources / writing

Great Opening Lines That Set the Tone

credit: Hans

Great books start with one line

An opening line is critical to a novel. It sets the tone for the entire story. The rumor is–confirmed at the last writer’s

conference I attended–many agents won’t read past the first line if it doesn’t grab them. They’re talking about a query letter, but it’s true of readers, too. If you don’t set a tantalizing stage or introduce intriguing characters with the first sentence of your novel, you lose the audience.

This is especially true with all the ‘free looks’ we give potential readers. Amazon has ‘look inside’. Scribd allows you to post the first chapter (well, as much as you want; most authors stop after one chapter). I’ve had over 3000 readers peak inside my excerpt of To Hunt a Sub which is my unpublished, uncompleted thriller. I posted it to see if there was interest and got my answer.

Here’s a list shared with me by James Hitt, author of Carny: A Novel in Stories, from Aberdeen Press:

  • Call me Ishmael (Herman Melville, Moby Dick)
  • You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter. (Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn)
  • It was a dark and stormy night (Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford)
  • If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth (JD Salinger The Catcher in the Rye)
  • I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story. (Edith Wharton Ethan Frome)
  • It was a pleasure to burn (Ray Bradbury Fahrenheit 451)
  • I have never begun a novel with more misgiving (W. Somerset Maugham The Razor’s Edge)
  • In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. (F. Scott Fitzgerald Great Gatsby)
  • The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there (LP Hartley The Go-Between)
  • When I finally caught up with Abraham Traherne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon (James Crumley, The Last Good Kiss)

Each of these grabs my attention, makes it easy to commit to a few more sentences. I want to know why ‘it was a pleasure to burn’ or about that character’s ‘lousy childhood’. That gives the author a bit more time to engage me, and if they’re good author’s, they’ll get me reading a few more sentences, and paragraphs and chapters. I’ll be hooked. If it’s a thriller, I’ll read all night. If it’s literary fiction, I’ll take a break to ponder the weighty thoughts shared on the pages.

It all starts with a great opening line.

Do you have any?



11 thoughts on “Great Opening Lines That Set the Tone

  1. “Please, don’t let him kill me! Please, don’t let him kill me!” Veronica hollers. She sucks in dry dust along the gravel dirt road. Veronica cradles her one-year-old child, Lisa, in her arms. Veronica’s right arm seeps red flow from elbow downward. Her long braided red spotted hair runs behind her.


    • A fleeing mom with a one-year old–what could grab the attention of readers better. And then you throw in the blood in her hair, down her arm–excellent. My suggesion: As an opening line(s), tighten it up. Get rid of a few adjectives, Only one iteration of her plea. That sort.

      Have you finished the book?


    • I’m sure it does, especially as I watch my blog statistics. One of them measures how long a person stays on my blog before ‘bouncing’. One of the categories is ‘below 5 seconds’, which can only mean they read the first line and skedaddled.

      Depressing, hunh?


  2. I have rewritten my opening line maybe 20 times. The book has been finished for a long time, but I’m just doing another reedit on my agent’s advice, and I just changed the opening again. At the moment it’s

    Grrh! Ariel grabbed a handful of felt tip pens and hurled them.

    What do you think?


    • Ah, that elusive great opening line. Put mine on a milk carton–it’s gone. I never get enough action in my openings to satisfy my editors. I’m seriously considering whether I should be a literary fic writer rather than a thriller. Grrh! (to steal your line).

      Good opening line. Makes me wonder why your character would have so many felt tip pens around and why throw them? Now, here’s my suggestion. You’ve probably labored over that line for hours, stressed and worried and now, here goes an armchair critic: I’m not sure about Grrh. I’ve never seen a book open with a sound like that. I’m not the type to follow a rule over a cliff, but as an unknown author, I’m not terribly brave. What’s your editor’s feedback?


      • I generally try to follow the rules so as not to cut my chances of presenting a publisher with something that might be their pet hate.

        At this stage, I’m going to leave it though because I like the rythm of the first paragraph better with it in. I’m counting on it not annoying the crap out of a publisher. But hey, its one word. Surely, if they hate it, they can not let it colour their opinion of the rest of the paragrph. It’s easy to cut it out. Mind you, you never know. I’ll see what my agent says when I present it to her and I might run it by the writers who read it with the last starter.

        My previous line started with ‘Expoential logerisms. Arggh’. I’ve had 2 editors, 3 published writers, about 8 target readers and my agent and none of them minded the Arggh. Mind you it wasn’t the first word. I think that in the end we have to go with our gut feeling.


      • I agree. That’s a lot of people to not mind it. When I read it on your blog, as part of a bigger excerpt, I didn’t mind it either. Sounds like a pretty good book.


  3. H, Jacqui! My experience has been that the best opening line usually comes to mind after the book is finished. Once all the other words are out of your head and you’ve had a chance to reorder the first few chapters (a process I always seem to go through), that’s when the best line for opening the book suddenly appears like a light switching on.

    So, my suggestion to writers working on their first book is to focus on getting the whole story out of your head and into the computer. Don’t fret about that opening line. In fact, you might have written the line already in a different place. Don’t let the absence of a great opening line delay your writing. Eventually you’ll find the words embedded somewhere else in the story or newly arriving in your brain.

    As Jacqui said, that line will ultimately become hugely important.


    • That’s an excellent point–that the opening line appears unbidden. Also, that it may be hidden in another part of the book. Great hands-on suggestions for solving this conundrum.

      Please share your opening line with readers, Cheri, since you just won an award for your book. What wondrous prose did you write that secured that honor?


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