Do you struggle with starting a novel? You might have heard that the first line and paragraph of your novel are super important, which only piles on the pressure.
I know the feeling, and I’ll bet most authors fret over those first few sentences and paragraphs. I wonder how long George Orwell thought about his frequently-mentioned first line in 1984:
It was a bright day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
If you Google with keywords like “how to write opening line paragraph novel” you’ll find so much contradictory or confusing advice you’ll wonder why you bothered. Or you’ll wonder who’s right and who’s wrong.
Trouble is, there’s no “right” when it comes to opening lines and first paragraphs. But the reasons for the “rules” are sound: first lines and paragraphs are easy to bungle if you’re not skilled enough to break a rule or balance the “mistake.”
Here’s what my research produced:
The most common mistakes in opening lines and paragraphs
- The character waking up, especially with an alarm clock
- A secondary character featured
- A description of the weather
- A character looking in a mirror and describing him or herself
- A character’s physical description
- Foreshadowing (also found listed as good advice)
- Show, don’t tell; avoid excessive narration or description
- Flowery language; lengthy or complicated sentences
- Too much description and detail
- Unclear or confusing
- A prologue (also good advice)
The most effective opening lines and paragraphs
- Arouse curiosity
- Establish conflict
- Introduce the protagonist
- Create intrigue
- Are surprising, funny, or shocking
- Present a philosophical or universal truth
- Establish the theme
- Start in the middle of the action
- Establish the emotional landscape or hint at the main character’s personality
- Establish a unique voice
- Introduce an ominous sense of doom or foreboding, foreshadowing (also considered a mistake)
- Feature the inciting incident or complication
- Introduce momentum, pull the reader in and ahead: what will happen next?
Keep these in mind as you develop and revise your opening line and paragraph, but remember, these are guidelines. Rules that can be broken.
Let’s take a look at some rule-breaking opening lines and paragraphs.
All 15 are written by best-selling (and prize-winning) authors, and all but one are critically acclaimed. And I’ve read them all except for one, which is so well-known I know the basic story, plus I’ve browsed through it and read plenty of reviews.
I’ve analyzed why each one works despite so-called mistakes. That’s right! Mistakes. Terrible opening line and paragraph “mistakes” written by well-known authors. And it’s all to put your mind to rest about “rules.” They’re good guidelines, especially for beginners, but with some skill, breaking the rules doesn’t really matter in the end
Take a good look and see how your first lines and paragraph measure up.
I’ve left the last four for you to decide. What mistakes, if any, are made? Why do the opening lines and paragraphs work? And see if you can you guess who the authors are and the names of the books. Share in the comments! Answers below.
1. Don’t mention the weather.
My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down. It was seventy-five degrees in Phoenix, the sky a perfect, cloudless blue. I was wearing my favorite shirt—sleeveless, white eyelet lace; I was wearing it as a farewell gesture. My carry-on item was a parka.
This author paid no heed to the often-mentioned weather warning. But this opening paragraph serves several purposes.
First, since weather plays a big role in this story, it’s a given that it should be mentioned. Second, the contrast of the weather in Phoenix and her destination foreshadows the changes and contrasts the protagonist will face. The parka also suggests the physical setting—cold—and the emotional landscape, which we can hear in the writer’s voice: irony, sarcasm, and resignation to fate. On top of that, the language is simple and easy to understand, and it has great rhythm (read it aloud a few times ).
2. Show, don’t tell
When I think of my wife, I always think of her head. The shape of it, to begin with. The very first time I saw her, it was the back of her head I saw, and there was something lovely about it, the angles of it. Like a shiny, hard corn kernel or a riverbed fossil. She had what the Victorians would call a finely shaped head. You could imagine the skull quite easily.
This is a perfect example of telling rather than showing—you’ve probably heard “show, don’t tell” countless times. And the next paragraph goes on the same way with the character’s musings about the inside of her head. And then (are you ready?) he wakes up! (See #3).
It follows other rules, however. It’s intriguing and arouses curiosity. It’s also somewhat shocking—why is this man obsessed with her head? And by the time “skull” is mentioned, it offers the reader an ominous sense of foreboding and suggests something bad is going to happen.
3. The character waking up is a big no-no.
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed into bed with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
It might be obvious why this first line and first paragraph work well despite breaking a common rule. The fact that the “other side of the bed is cold” grabs the reader’s interest because it’s intriguing. Why is the bed cold? We find out right away, but why has Prim disappeared? Again, we get the answer to our question immediately (bad dreams) plus find out why. We don’t know what a “reaping” is yet, but it’s obviously something scary (ominous, foreboding) if “she” had bad dreams about it. Finally, the reader gets insight into the protagonist’s personality (worrying, caretaking) and her sister’s (nervous, frightened). And we want to find out what happens next!
4. A secondary or minor character shouldn’t start the story.
Mr. And Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.
If you start with a character other than the main character, according to popular advice, readers will be confused. You should also avoid excessive or mundane details. But this author ignores both rules with minor characters and details about them including their exact (if fictional) address.
So why does it work? It’s the writer’s voice (actually the characters’ voices) which suggests Mr. and Mrs. Dursley may think they’re “perfectly normal,” though they’re anything but. Think of it: When you hear or read “they’re the last people you’d expect…” to do something or other, you know it’s a hint that they actually do.
Plus, if you know what a “privet” is (a type of shrub commonly used for privacy), it hints at the characters’ personalities. And although these characters have little to do with the actual plot, mentioning them establishes the setting of where things begin.
5. Avoid excessive narration, exposition, or description.
There is a pile of clothing on the side of the train tracks. Light-blue cloth—a shirt, perhaps—jumbled up with something dirty white. It’s probably rubbish, part of a load dumped in the scrubby little wood up the bank. It could have been left behind by the engineers who work this part of the track, they’re here often enough. Or it could be something else. My mother used to tell me that I had an overactive imagination; Tom said that too. I can’t help it, I catch sight of those discarded scraps, a dirty T-shirt or a lonesome shoe, and all I can think of is the other shoe and the feet that fitted into them.
I count seven adjectives—a bit much—in this wordy, perhaps overly-descriptive first paragraph, and the first line is boring at first glance. But the curiosity it arouses and intrigue it suggests make it work. Why would a pile of clothing be on the side of train tracks?
The protagonist’s mental meanderings also hint at her mental state and personality, plus there’s a sense of foreboding: who do the clothes belong to and what happened to them? On top of all that, a hint of conflict is introduced by mentioning the mother and someone named Tom who criticize the character’s “overactive imagination,” which is no doubt hurtful since she “can’t help it.”
6. More excessive detail and narration plus a prologue.
The circus arrives without warning.
No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.
The towering tents are striped in white and black, no golds and crimsons to be seen. No color at all, save for the neighboring trees and the grass of the surrounding fields. Black-and-white stripes on grey sky; countless tents of varying shapes and sizes, with an elaborate wrought-iron fence encasing them in a colorless world. Even what little ground is visible from outside is black or white, painted or powdered, or treated with some other circus trick.
But it is not open for business. Not just yet.
I chose this prologue as an opening because, due to the book’s layout and the prologue’s title—”Anticipation”—it’s not clear that it’s a prologue. The transition to the first chapter might be a little jarring, but if it were truly a problem, the book wouldn’t be a NYT bestseller with stellar critical reviews, nor would it have 6,616 reviews on Amazon.
The first line is ominous and introduces potential conflict or a problem: “The circus arrives without warning.” Why would anyone need a “warning” about a circus coming to town? The word choice also establishes the setting and creates momentum: What will happen when it opens? What’s next? And the detailed description of the circus might be overdone in some other novel, but this is so unusual and well-written it just works, especially considering that the circus is a central focus and almost a character itself.
By the way, this book is so good I re-read it immediately—twice.
7. Unclear or confusing plus excessive description and narration
History is the third parent.
As Rohan makes his way through the garden, not long after nightfall, a memory comes to him from his son Jeo’s childhood, a memory that slows him and eventually brings him to a standstill. Ahead of him candles are burning in various places of the house because there is no electricity. Wounds are said to emit light under certain conditions—touch them and the brightness will stay on the hands—and as the candles burn Rohan thinks of each flame as an injury somewhere in his house.
The first line is unclear without some thought, but it’s intriguing and presents a philosophical and psychological truth and suggests the theme. Plus the paragraph establishes a unique voice and also hints at the theme, setting, and conflict to come.
8. Excessive description and narration—again.
My sister, Greta, and I were having our portrait painted by our uncle Finn that afternoon because he knew he was dying. This was after I understood that I wasn’t going to grow up and move into his apartment and live there with him for the rest of my life. After I stopped believing that the AIDS thing was all some kind of a big mistake. When he first asked, my mother said no. She said there was something macabre about it. When she thought of the two of us sitting in Finn’s apartment with its huge windows, the scent of lavender and orange, when she thought of him looking at us like it might be the last time he would see us, she couldn’t bear it. And, she said it was a long drive from northern Westchester all the way into Manhattan. She crossed her arms over her chest, looked right into Finn’s bird-blue eyes, and told him it was just hard to find the time these days.
“Tell me about it,” he said.
That’s what broke her.
The first line is a true gem. Absolutely perfect. If it weren’t for the last six words, however, I’d suggest the author work on it.
My sister, Greta, and I were having our portrait painted by our uncle Finn that afternoon. Without because he knew he was dying, it just falls flat.
I also find it difficult to fault the opening paragraph, but in less skilled hands, it might be seriously overdone. The theme is introduced, and we see the conflict right away: Uncle Finn is dying and the character’s mother (Finn’s sister) is wrestling not only with her brother’s death, but also with her children’s contact with him. We sense the impending doom, the emotional landscape, and the character’s personality—clearly young. Plus we experience the unique voice, the first-person narration of the protagonist.
9. Lots of details!
Balloon Tying for Christ was the cheapest balloon manual I could find. The day I bought it, it was hidden on the lowest rung of a dusty spinner rack down at Callan’s Novelties, snuggled alongside shopworn how-to guides: Travel Europe by Clown Circuit!, Rubber Vomit Skits for Beginners, and Latex: The Beauty of Cuts, Bruises, Scars, and Contusions.
This is a fabulous opening line and first paragraph, but if it weren’t so funny, it would have to be rewritten. Mentioning the titles of other how-to guides would be excessive; in fact, titles are about one-third (24 words) of this 62-word paragraph. But it introduces the protagonist’s personality, her voice (a dead-pan sense of humor), and the inner conflict of hiding herself and her pain in the guise of a clown.
10. Oops! Dialogue and secondary characters.
“Our daughter looks like a South China peasant with those red cheeks,” my father complains, pointedly ignoring the soup before him. “Can’t you do anything about them?”
Mama stares at Baba, but what can she say? My face is pretty enough—some might even say lovely—but not as luminescent as the pearl I’m named for. I tend to blush easily. Beyond that, my cheeks capture the sun. When I turned five, my mother began rubbing my face and arms with pearl creams, and mixing pearls into my morning jook—rice porridge—hoping the white essence would permeate my skin. It hasn’t worked.
Another NYT bestseller, this author does exactly what the advice you’ll find says not to do. But the question is, Does it hook the reader? The novel’s popularity, the critical praise, and the glowing reviews suggest it does. But how?
The first line arouses curiosity and establishes one of the novel’s conflicts, and the paragraph expands on that. And while it’s not the main character speaking, she’s reporting the dialogue and introduces the novel’s narrative voice in the opening paragraph.
We also get a hint of part of the main conflict as well as the protagonist’s personality with her concern about her appearance and that her mother’s treatment “hasn’t worked.”
11. Protagonist looking in the mirror describing his or her appearance.
I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror. Damn my hair—it just won’t behave, and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal. I should be studying for my final exams, which are next week, yet here I am trying to brush my hair into submission. I must not sleep with it wet. I must not sleep with it wet. Reciting this mantra several times, I attempt, once more, to bring it under control with the brush. I roll my eyes in exasperation and gaze at the pale, brown-eyed girl with blue eyes too big for her face staring back at me, and give up. My only option is to restrain my wayward hair in a ponytail and hope that I look semi-presentable.
I can’t offer much praise for the first line or the rest of the paragraph—but it’s a typical beginner’s mistake. And I don’t recommend following this example. However, it’s readable, it’s believable, and it provides insight into the emotional landscape of the story (not very deep) and the personality of the protagonist (also not very deep).
It does offer some curiosity value—what is this ordeal she’s preparing for? Why must she be at least “semi-presentable?” Plus the voice is distinctive, and the narrative momentum moves the reader quickly forward.
But would a naïve, inexperienced 21-year-old look in a mirror and meditate on the reflection of a “pale, brown-eyed girl with blue eyes too big for her face?” Maybe, but this opening stands out as a cliché more than anything.
If it were written better, would the novel be as successful as it has been with a whopping 73,601 Amazon reviews? Movies? A fortune for the author? Probably not. Apparently, the beginner-level reading style is part of the charm, plus it’s actually pretty funny.
Do you see any obvious mistakes in the following opening lines and paragraphs? What does the author do right, and why are these good opening lines and paragraphs? Do you think they’re good?
12. Any problems here?
The Santa Anas blew in hot from the desert, shriveling the last of the spring grass into whiskers of pale straw. Only the oleanders thrived, their delicate poisonous blooms, their dagger green leaves. We could not sleep in the hot dry nights, my mother and I. I woke up at midnight to find her bed empty. I climbed to the roof and easily spotted her blond hair like a white flame in the light of the three-quarter moon.
13. What does this author do right?
I’m in the water. Only my eyes are visible, and I blow bubbles to ensure the rest of me stays submerged until the opportune time. Besides the lifeguard watching from his perch, there’s a gaggle of girls my age patrolling the beach with younger siblings in tow. They pace in their flip-flops and bikinis, and I wait.
14. How do this first line and paragraph rate?
Ree asked Jeanette if she ever watched the square of light from the window. Jeanette said she didn’t. Ree was in the top bunk, Jeanette in the bottom. They were both waiting for the cells to unlock for breakfast. It was another morning.
15. A rule is broken, but which one, and why does it work?
“Gimme two scoops, three waddles, and a shake!” Marlene is standing a few feet away from me, yelling out the next order because of the damn noise. Like the clanging of the manhole-sized skillet I’m using to saute a fresh heap of diced onions, celery, and bell peppers. The popping and cackling of our deep fryer, louder than hail on a tin roof. The roar of the exhaust fan, straining to suck out all the smoke. And that’s just inside our sweltering little food truck.
Authors and titles
- Twilight, Stephenie Meyer
- Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn
- The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J. K. Rowling
- The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins
- The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern
- The Blind Man’s Garden, Nadeem Aslam
- Tell the Wolves I’m Home: A Novel, Carol Rifka Brunt
- Clown Girl, Monica Drake
- Shanghai Girls, Lisa See
- Fifty Shades of Gray, E L James
- White Oleander, Janet Fitch
- Saints and Misfits, S. K. Ali
- Sleeping Beauties, Stephen King and Owen King
- The Chef, James Patterson
If you find this discussion of opening lines and paragraphs helpful, I’d love to know. Comment below! And please share.