Great First Lines in Books (and why they’re important)

Great First Lines (and why they’re important)

Some books don’t need to start with a line about action or someone saying something intriguing to pull you in. First lines can be pretty ordinary, but they still manage to hook you. The first line of Killing Floor (the first Jack Reacher book) is simple and short, but it made me read on.

I was arrested in Eno’s diner.

Lee Child uses six words, and manages to raise enough questions and set up Reacher’s character to make reading on a no-brainer. Why was he arrested? And who is ‘he’?

Some of the best first lines make you question, make you want to read on to find the answers to those questions.

Some books do start out with action, or dialogue or something shocking. But all first lines should hook you–for a lot of people it’s the first thing they read when they pick up a book in a store. The writer has to make sure the few seconds or minute or two the reader has is enough to get them hooked enough to buy the book. The first line and opening of the book are where they’ll persuade a reader or put them off.

Below are some great first lines from books I’ve read…

My mother thinks I’m dead… (From Legend by Marie Lu)

Short, simple, but it packs a pretty good punch. I wanted to know why his mother thinks he’s dead, what he’s done, who he is… Marie Lu makes you ask questions right from the start.

Gordon Edgley’s death came as a shock to everyone– not least himself… (From Skulduggery Pleasant book 1 by Derek Landy)

This line sums up Landy’s sense of humor that runs through every page of all nine books: whip-smart and dry. It also makes us ask questions. And books that begin with deaths always seem to be intriguing.

Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall… (From Northern Lights/Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman)

The first few words of His Dark Materials immediately tell the reader this book isn’t set in the same world as ours. As a reader, I wanted to know what kind of world it was and why Lyra was with a daemon, and why it was hers.

The villagers of Little Hangleton still called it the ‘Riddle House’, even though it had been many years since the Riddle family had lived there. (From Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J K Rowling)

This is the first of the Potter books that doesn’t open with Harry, but Rowling uses the Riddle name to hook you. Up until now, Voldemort’s past hasn’t been clear, but this opening prologue sets up some answers about how Tom Riddle became Voldemort.

Look, I didn’t want to be a Half-Blood. (From The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan)

This opening line to the first Percy Jackson book almost sounds like Percy is talking to the reader. We don’t know what a Half-Blood is yet, but we want to know.

One minute the teacher was talking about the Civil War. And the next minute he was gone… (From Gone by Michael Grant)

Where did the teacher go? This is one of at least a hundred questions the first book in the Gone series raises. The whole series is a question. Each book keeps the pages turning by slowly feeding you answers, and more questions.

He began his new life standing up, surrounded by cold darkness and stale, dusty air. (From the Maze Runner by James Dashner)

Why is this his new life? What happened to his old one? Where is he? A few of the dozens of questions the first book (and strongest) in the Maze Runner series asks.

It would take a pretty long blog post to list all of the great first/openings lines I’ve read. The above are a few of the ones that stuck in my head. The fact that they stuck in my head proves how good they are– and the skill of the authors who wrote them. They did their job in making me read on. Stephen King and Lee Child are also two authors who are masters at writing first lines.

Does anyone have a favourite from the ones above, or have you got a first line from a different book? Do you like books that open with action, or that make you ask questions? If you’ve got a favourite first line, it’ll be cool to read it, so feel free to drop it in a comment below.


About Sam Whitehouse

Sam spends most of his time in a different world to other people. If it isn’t one he’s created himself, it’s one he’s reading about. In the rare moments when this isn’t the case, Sam can either be found addicted to a sci-fi or crime show, re-watching Marvel movies, finishing up an assignment for his final year of studying Creative Writing at Sheffield Hallam University, or trying to get the dozens of ideas for stories in his head under some kind of control. Sam has lived in the same small village in Yorkshire, surrounded by countryside on all sides ever since he could remember. His childhood saw him get into plenty of scrapes climbing trees and crossing rivers and generally believing he was Indiana Jones. Sam gives credit to his Grandad for him wanting to be a writer, and his bedtime stories for keeping Sam’s imagination stoked. But credit must also go to Steven Spielberg, J K Rowling and Stephen King, who have provided plenty of inspiration over the years, too. Sam writes what he reads, and that is pretty much anything—save romance. Fantasy, thrillers, or crime: once an idea takes root, he can’t stop until the world, characters, and plot are on paper. A huge Marvel fan, Sam one day hopes to pen a screenplay for one of their movies, or direct one, or do anything at all related to one. Until then, he’ll stick to his own fantasy worlds and wait for Marvel’s phone call.

Posted on 05/28/2015, in books, reading, writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Interesting post. I like the Percy Jackson one and the Skulduggery Pleasant one. I like books with both, but I have to say I prefer books that open making me ask questions, I’m not quite ready to be thrown straight into the action when I start a book (although it doesn’t hurt in making me interested).

  2. I like action openings, but I also like to ask questions.

  3. After reading this, the one’s that stick out to me are Brandon Sanderson’s “I’ve seen Steelheart bleed” (Steelheart) and Patrick Ness’ “The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say. About anything.” (Knife of Never Letting Go).

    But yeah, I find first lines pretty important since they seem to set the tone going forward as it concerns the first chapter (and onward); which I sometimes consider akin to a television pilot haha.

    Joey via. thoughts and afterthoughts

  4. That’s a cool one from Steelheart. Good book.

  5. I love so many of these!! Particularly Gone’s and Skulduggery’s. I adore SP, like you said, because it sums up the tone of the book straight away. I think first sentences should hook you in AND set up the tone of the book. And I like it when the sentences indicates where the book is going — like Gone, you know that’s a BIG DEAL already. And in Percy Jackson, you know Half Blood is going to be the premise of the book. Totally epic first sentences!!

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