crop woman writing down notes in diary

Great First Lines

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

My favorite first sentence. It sucks me into the dichotomy and narrative to come. It feels like a frame for the tension to come between the aristocracy and the revolutionaries, Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton, and London and Paris.

I learned as I typed it out that it is 119 words long. Longer than AI editors would recommend these days, but I think we can still write great first lines. Except that in practice, I often dither and obsess about my last sentence or paragraph, and just skim past the opening sentence of the piece. I treat it like it’s just an on-ramp to where I’m going, just a place for everyone to get up to speed before we’re off to the races.

So I went looking for some good first lines on WordPress.  

I spent most of my life not watching television.

From Esoterica on Television: Mindless Mush or Unequivocal Delight?

Doesn’t that do a great job to make you wonder what she was doing instead? “

Never did I imagine writing a post that would link my mom, Sue, with Dostoevsky, yet here I am.”

From Vicki Atkinson on Peek Inside: “Surviving Sue” – The Weight of Lies

Ah, this feels like such a great tease. It presents an unlikely juxtaposition about Sue and makes me think of the unpredictable nature of life.

Out of nowhere, a robin landed on the concrete fountain.”  

From Garden Gifts by Stuart M. Perkins

I love that one because it places me in a location – in a garden or looking at one.

Have you ever watched a kid with a helium balloon in absolute terror because, at some point, they will let go of the balloon, and it will drift out of their reach before anyone has a chance to respond?

From Cheryl Oreglia in Belonging

Yes, yes, yes – I can feel the tension.

A round, green door, slightly ajar

From Chaya Sheela on Inviting Imagination

Ah, that sentence, especially combined with the title, and I’m primed for discovery.

These examples remind me to spend a little more time with my first sentences. They are more than an on-ramp to where we are going, they are the signage that gets us there, the GPS that confirms we are going to the right place, and also a reminder to buckle up because it’s going to be a great ride.

How do you feel about first lines?

I’ve posted a companion piece on my personal blog in which I use a snippet of story for my first sentence: What To Do With Our Inner Meanness. I also post on Mondays at the Heart of the Matter blog. You can find me on Instagram and Twitter @wynneleon

(featured photo from Pexels)

53 thoughts on “Great First Lines

  1. I think the first line decides whether a reader wants to continue or glazes over. Not that I am the Queen of first lines, lol

  2. Thanks Wynne – I always spend time thinking about a title but hardly ever on my first sentence. Will start to do so now 🙏🏼

  3. I also tend to view the first sentence as an inconsequential on-ramp and don’t think twice about it, so I’m pleasantly surprised that I accidentally crafted a decent hook. 😂 I’ll have to give more though to my first sentences… good ones really are powerful and, as VJ points out, may be be the deciding factor as to whether a reader dives in.

    1. I loved that first sentence, Erin. A great hook – perfect way to put it. I need to spend a little more time on them too because you’re right – they are powerful!

  4. That is a beautiful first sentence from the Tale of Two Cities. I love that one too. I think we write so much more casually now (not necessarily a bad thing!). I need to pay more attention to the first line as well..🙂

  5. The say that you will decide to read a book or not if you like the first ten lines. I try to read the first ten pages before taking any decisions, I want to give the author a chance. It’s a bit the same for articles, but definitely, headlines and first lines shall draw my attention somehow. Beautiful choice of first lines Wynne!

    1. That’s so interesting about the first 10 lines, Cristiana. That makes sense but I love that you give it 10 pages You’re right – headlines and first lines draw the attention even when we are generously willing to hang on for longer. Thanks for the great comment.

  6. I have studied first lines to see what gets my interest. I read the first line only of a pile of books. My favorite: “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

    1. Oh, oh, oh – I know what book that comes from. What a great exercise that you did with a pile of books. I love your creativity – about creativity! Brilliant, Elizabeth!

  7. First lines can draw me in, but ending lines usually stay with me more. In college I was taught to checkout the ending of any book, before reading it– part of my English Lit major curriculum. The habit has stayed with me. 🤷‍♀️

      1. I read the first chapter or two then read the last few pages of a novel. The idea was that by knowing which characters are at the end of a story you’ll pay more attention to them as you read the story, thereby gaining more insight into the how the author writes. I dunno if it is true, but I was trained to do that and still do. Unless it’s a mystery. Or a memoir.

      2. [I left a reply but it vanished.]. In answer to your question, I read a few chapters at the beginning, then a few pages at the end. That way I know which characters to follow as the story goes along.

      3. Sorry about the vanishing comment, Ally. A really interesting idea that it helps to track the characters. Love your exceptions of mysteries and memoirs. Right!

  8. They are great lines! If there’s anything more difficult to write that first or last lines, for me, it would be titles. Trying to grab someone’s attention and convey the topic in so few words is difficult.

  9. I’ll need to start thinking more about endings … but yes the importance of first lines was drummed into me at school/uni … but sometimes I forget 🫢

  10. I don’t need my first line or lede paragraph figured out right away. I can come back to them, but when they come early in the process, it makes the rest of the piece so much more fun to write. I’m not much of a headline writer but I think headlines and first lines are so important in keeping my interest and willingness to keep reading. A boring first line? I’m much more likely to start skimming and maybe even move onto something else to read! Great piece.

    1. I love your observation that when you have a first line/lede figured out that it makes a piece so much more fun to write. And you also make a great point that we can come back to them – maybe when we know how it ends?? Love it, Brian!

  11. First lines are important… but I think that the whole of the first chapter is important too… I often find myself struggling with the first chapter of a book, even if it is one that I persist with and end up enjoying… I wonder how many readers authors lose in this way…

    1. You have such a great point, Paul. If there are too many characters or the timeline jumps around too much in that first chapter, it’s so easy to get lost (speaking for myself) before I’m on my way. And good question – how any readers do authors lose that way?

  12. I’m fascinated by first lines. Because I’m a writer, I often wonder about the thought process that authors have done to craft a first line. Great first lines and first paragraphs can grab your attention and make you ask, “What’s going on here?” A couple of my favorites:
    — “It was a pleasure to burn.” — Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
    — ““As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” — The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka

    1. Oh, those are great first lines, Dave! Yes, wouldn’t it be fascinating to know the thought process? I just read that Ray Bradbury advice was to read the Bible, a poem and an essay every day. I wonder if some of that line came from that practice?

  13. This isn’t a first line, it’s my favorite title. Legacy of the Heart: The Spiritual Advantages of a Painful Childhood by Wayne Muller.

    Yep, that’s me!! I didn’t like the insides of the book that much, but for me the title was enough.

  14. I don’t think a good first line makes or breaks a book for me, but a bad first line certainly will. However, if I’m not hooked by the first chapter, I’m finally mature enough to close the book and walk away. I have too many on my TBR shelf to struggle through a book that isn’t my style. (doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad, just that it’s not for me 🙂 )

    1. Oh, I love your distinction that a bad line will definitely turn you off. That’s a very good point. It’s funny about closing books – you put it well when you say you are finally mature enough to walk away. I’ve struggled through many. I find it easier to walk away from ebooks I’ve purchased than hard cover. I wonder if there’s less of an investment?

      1. I think so..and it’s not as physical. I don’t have to donate or find another way to rehome the book, I just stop reading with the ebooks. (plus many of them I read on KU, so not really any risk! )

  15. The first line of Dickens’ sentence is so powerful and so often quoted that I had forgotten the rest, but as I read, I couldn’t help but reflect about how these words—written so long ago—are unbelievably spot on to these times we are living in now! Wow. I’m tempted to say “Some things never change” but I am the eternal optimist who believes with all her heart that things WILL and ARE changing for the better, light WILL win over darkness, and these worst of times will not revisit us once enough of us have our gaze fixed in the right direction. Amen to that, I say!

    1. I’d forgotten the rest of that opening sentence too. But I’m with you, Julia, things will change and are changing. Even when the nay-sayer chorus sounds similar year after year, the light continues to grow. Especially with big hearts like yours!

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