First lines, last chance

Since it’s a safe bet that most everyone reading this blog is either a writer or an avid reader — or both, I thought we’d chat about first lines and drawing the reader in. Prospective readers browse in bookstores, libraries, and online stores stalking their next read. Titles and cover art make them pick up the book. The blurb or log line on the back cover incite them to turn to Page One. 

As authors, we have a brief window of time to entice the reader to check out or buy that book. Browsers may read the first paragraph or two at most. According to an article I read recently, people spend about three seconds on a page online before they either decide to continue reading or click to another page. THREE seconds!

Image: Pixabay

This is why first lines are critical. If the title, art, and brief pitch on the back cover do their job and get the reader to open the book, the first line is usually the last chance to hook them. That line needs to leap off the page and grab the reader.

Here are five examples of first lines I believe accomplish this: (The books I’ve chosen are humorous and mostly cozy/ish. Disclosure: One of them is mine. I’d be a sap to miss an opportunity to hawk my own book, right?) By the way, the fellow authors cited below are mystery writers whose books I heartily recommend.

“While cowering in the back of a ferry boat, head over the railing and losing my lunch in Lake Huron, it occurred to me that no matter how old I am, I want to impress my parents.” — Geared For the Grave by Duffy Brown

This is a vivid introduction to the main character, her psychology, her current circumstances, and the setting! Bonus points for action.

“Melchior! Give Caspar back the Frankincense! And Balthazar, if you don’t stop throwing the myrrh at the shepherds, I’m demoting you to junior sheep!” — Lark! The Herald Angels Sing by Donna Andrews

The reader immediately knows the book is set around Christmas and we’re watching the rehearsal of a children’s Christmas pageant. And we know we’re going to have fun (humorous tone).

“Monday was a scorching August day that had turned into hell for me when the Ferrell brothers crashed a party that already had disaster written all over it.” — Death Crashes the Party by Vickie Fee

The reader knows we’re going to a party that may not turn out successfully, and we learn in short order that the Ferrell brothers are the murder victims. We also know that on this Monday in August everything including the weather is working against our main character.

The next two examples pull us in with provocative statements.

“Claudia Warren took too long to die.” — As Directed by Kathleen Valenti

This statement may shock the reader, as it’s not the way we would generally talk about someone at the end of life. But, it totally works to draw the reader in! We want to know who Claudia Warren is, how she died, and who would say such a thing. 

“The trouble with whispering is that it draws the attention of everyone within earshot.” — Big Little Spies by Krista Davis

Ooh, the reader is dying to know what the speaker just said — or heard. Our imagination is running ahead of us, wondering if it was something secret or scandalous. Embarrassing or even dangerous.

There are lots of guidelines for writing first lines, such as there should be a feeling of immediacy. Introduce the main character. Ground the reader with a sense of place. And generally, novels shouldn’t start with theme, backstory or description. Yada, whatever.

But, rules are made to be broken. And the only thing that ultimately matters is that the reader feels compelled to keep reading!

Do you have a preferred way for novels (especially mysteries) to open? Do you have a first line or opening from a recently read book or favorite author that has really stuck with you (you can give just the gist, doesn’t have to be verbatim)? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

47 thoughts on “First lines, last chance

  1. As a (non-published) writer, I try to open with the pot boiling. As a reader, I love books that open with a bang. Granted, once I find an author I love, I tend to binge their backlog between new releases I’ve been clamoring for. But if you can open with a *Kaboom!* you’ve got me!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I loved that first line from Kathleen’s book. Wow.

    My newest Homefront Mystery releases tomorrow. I like to start those with Betty talking “to” the reader – almost breaking the fourth wall, but not quite – about the theme of the book. THE LESSONS WE LEARN starts “When I was little, and I did something wrong, Pop would punish me.” The one I just started, tentatively titled THE TRUTHS WE HIDE is, “The truth is a funny thing.”

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Congrats and best of luck with your book launch, Liz!
      Starting with “theme” breaks one of the so-called rules. But, you do it — and it definitely works for you. Good on ya — you rebel!

      Liked by 3 people

    1. I didn’t know today was his birthday, Tracy! Hope everyone has a dickens of a great day!
      I still love that classic opener for A Tale of Two Cities, but it probably exceeds the three-second standard for today’s readers!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. 3 seconds? THREE? Wow. That’s even less time than I thought. Offhand, I am drawing a blank on any particular first lines other than James Joyce’s “Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road…” (thanks, Modern Fiction 221). But I have to agree with Jen: It’s all about the voice for me in the opening. I am immediately wary of opening quotes. I guess that’s because I spend the whole first chapter trying to figure out how it relates to the story, or promises to.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Love that line from Joyce’s “Portrait,” Lisa! Writing a first line (or few) is like composing a poem: It has to be perfectly tight and beautiful, yet seem like it sprang spontaneously from your pen with no effort whatsoever.

      As for my favorite first lines, that’s a hard one. But I am quite partial to the opening paragraph of Sue Grafton’s “A is for Alibi”: “My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private investigator, licensed by the state of California. I’m thirty-two years old, twice divorced, no kids. The day before yesterday I killed someone and the fact weighs heavily on my mind.”

      Liked by 3 people

    2. Lisa, quotes often throw me, too. I read a book that had a Shakespearean quote and the beginning of each chapter. I never figured out how they related to the story! Then again some books use quotes to great effect.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I love a good first line, as you may have figured out. (*cough* First Line Monday on Facebook *cough*

    There are so many great ways to start a book, and you have some great examples. Humor. Provocative statements. Action. Some combination of them. And yes, even the weather can be a good way to start if it sets a mood or says something about the book. It’s all in how it is executed.

    Stuart Gibbs is one of my favorites for first lines in his middle grade novels. A couple of his best:

    I never would have been accused of stealing the koala if Vince Jessup hadn’t made me throw the human arm in the shark tank. (from Poached)

    As Greg Rich hung from the prison wall, he realized how much he hated time travel (from The Last Musketeer)

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Mark, your First Line Mondays FB page is a great feature I seldom miss! And those are two stellar first lines you shared. Now we’re all wondering about that arm!!

      Liked by 2 people

  5. What a great collection of first lines!! I’m a big fan of them myself and always try to write one that will grab the reader in some way. Sometimes it’s kicking off the mystery, sometimes it’s setting the scene. For me, it’s often the latter. As long as folks are sharing their first lines – and yes, Mark, your First Line Monday is a great group! I keep forgetting to share the first lines of books I’m reading there, have to remember – anyhoo, here’s the first line of my upcoming release, Bayou Book Thief. “In some cities, a middle-aged woman dancing down the street dressed as a cross between a nineteen-seventies disco queen and Wilma Flintstone would be unusual. But this was New Orleans, where the unusual was the everyday.”

    It doesn’t set up the mystery, but once the image was in my head, it wouldn’t let go. I think first lines are like that sometimes. They take on a mind of their own!

    Liked by 3 people

  6. I was going to mention Mark Baker’s fun FB group, but he beat me! That group’s suggestions are why my TBR list is so long. This post from Vicky is concise and informative. It’s sending me back to my pre-published novel to move the first paragraphs around again! Thanks, Vicki!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks, Beth! Mark is a first-line scholar! Like you, his page is one of the reasons I have a teetering TBR pile! And I always rewrite that first paragraph so many times!

      Liked by 2 people

  7. As a reader, I give the author much more than 3 seconds. A great first line is awesome, but it doesn’t make or break a book for me. For my own books, I try to set a tone within the first paragraph or so.

    Those were all really good examples, Vickie!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thanks, Becky! Like you, I often give a book considerably more than three seconds before giving it a pass. But as an author I worry prospective readers won’t be so patient with me. I feel like I’m chasing the reader down the street shouting, “ Read me, Read me!”

      Liked by 3 people

  8. Ooooooooo! I love the power of a great book opener!! It’s like the literary equivalent of a pick up line.

    Sure, there’s the classic, venerable “Call me Ishmael” type deal that introduces us to a character or a place, but I love anything that pulls me immediately into the story.

    You’ve got some awesome examples here (and I’m positively BLUSHING that you included one of mine!!). I’ll also add one from Stephen King who, reportedly spends months crafting the perfect first line:

    “The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years – if it ever did end – began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.”

    Talk about setting the scene and mood!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That line from Stephen King definitely pulls the reader in — unless the reader knows how scary “It” is going to get. Then he might just run the other way!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. If you grab me with an intriguing first line I’ll buy the book. If it’s funny I’ll buy the first couple. You all have some great first lines. I also love this one from Jasper Fforde. “Mrs. Tiffen could play the bazooki.” It’s so weird that I immediately want to know more. One of my favorite things on Facebook is being tagged in Mark’s First Line Monday. It makes my whole day.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Here’s another great first line, folks: “I don’t care how good-looking a man is, somewhere there’s a woman who’s fed up with him.” — Beauty Expos Are Murder by Libby Klein
    Hi, Libby! That Jasper Fforde first line is a great hook!

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Edgar Allan Poe always draws me in

    From “The Fall of the House of Usher”:

    “DURING the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country ; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.”


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