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The Power of a Great First Line

Last updated 4 years ago

An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this. - Stephen King

Writers work hard on an opening sentence. That's because they know it makes an important first impression. It captures the reader's attention and sets the tone for the writing (serious, humorous, ironic). It may also introduce a character and, in non-fiction, lay a foundation for the main point.

Some opening lines are just as famous as the books they begin. Which ones do you recognize?

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times... ."
(A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens)

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” (Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen)

"He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish."
(The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway)

"Call me Ishmael." (Moby Dick by Herman Melville)

What makes a good opening line?
Some kinds of opening lines are especially effective in hooking a reader. Well-known librarian Nancy Pearl suggests that a book with a great opening line "just opens the door a crack" to hook your kids and teens into reading.

Here are a few strategies used by both fiction and non-fiction writers:

Create a vivid image
These writers engage our senses to pull us into the "world" of the book:

"Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream." (Cannery Row by John Steinbeck)

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”
(The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien)

Surprise and Intrigue the reader
Who can resist reading on when we encounter openings like these?

"It was fun (and affordable) while it lasted."
(America Is Falling Out of Love With TV Dinners by Roberto A. Ferdman)

"When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it's never good news."(Stormbreaker by Anthony Horowitz)

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
(1984 by George Orwell)

"Ma, a mouse has to do what a mouse has to do." (Ragweed by Avi)

“It was a pleasure to burn.” (Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury)

Browse with your kids in the library or a bookstore to discover how great first lines can capture their attention, broaden their reading interests, and boost their writing skills.

Contact The Literacy & Language Center to learn how we can help your kids enjoy and create memorable writing.

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