Many of our BPA First Novel Award and Pitch Prize judges say they’re looking for an attention-grabbing opening and a stand-out first line. The first line of your novel is undeniably important, but terms like ‘attention-grabbing’ can be easily misconstrued. That’s part of the reason we decided to start sharing our favourite opening lines from your entries on Twitter. Some of these sentences are subtle and some are bold. Some are simple and others are lyrical. Some are long, some short. They include action, dialogue and interior thought. But what was it about each line that grabbed our attention and drew us into the story?
“I lie on the autopsy table, my neck cradled in a rubber headrest.”
This sentence is simple and specific. It shows rather than tells us that the POV character is dead, immediately introducing an interesting premise.
“In a fire, you die long before your bones ignite. Skin burns at 40°C. Above 760°C, skin turns to ash.”
The content is fascinating as general trivia but also gets us interested in the story. Has someone been in a fire? It’s a bit creepy too, but the fact that it’s revealed in fact format rather than in description of action makes it palatable. (This line is unchanged in the now published The Silence Project by Carole Hailey!)
“Someone must have sold a story about me. Best hope it’s not the truth.”
The first line here suggests a rumour has been spread about the protagonist. The next turns it on its head, suggesting the rumour is likely true. It’s funny and the voice shines through.
“‘Are we doing everything everything? Or just the fun bits?’”
This is such fun, authentic dialogue. There’s no reason not to open a novel with dialogue if it’s clear and natural and pulls you into the scene.
“The first sensation that came to him was lift. His body hauled upward through the black, a bucket drawn up out of a deep and narrow well.”
It’s not obvious exactly what’s going on here, but as the reader you feel you’re there in this man’s body, sharing his physical experience. The metaphor really helps with this (and makes it a more engaging sentence).
“The letter’s arrival disrupted the routine of the Sosnovich house.”
Intrigue. What does the letter say? It can be a great idea to get a question in the reader’s head as soon as the first line. It’s also a good idea to include something that suggests a who or a where to physically ground the reader. The name ‘Sosnovich’ hints at both.
“Lottie Coleman was far too young to understand why she was wearing black.”
The distant perspective is really effective here, helping us to understand the confusion and sadness Lottie must be feeling. We also liked how the author tells you Lottie’s at a funeral without telling you Lottie’s at a funeral.
“The first time I ever meet Matthew, he’s in my bath.”
We like the quirkiness of this line! It compels you to continue reading to find out if the scene that ensues is awkward, tense … or maybe flirty.
“Today I am Alicia Beatrice Scott. I’ve been her all week and I was her for most of last.”
I love the confidence of this voice. We know the protagonist is impersonating another person, and this gives a good idea of the kind of story this will be, but the phrasing is ‘I am’, ‘I’ve been,’ ‘I was’.
“When all the other workshops on the small alleyway had closed for the night, only one light remained.”
The slightly whimsical feel of this line is really appealing. We’re pulled towards this light, wondering who is still working and why.
“It was, thanks be to the Holy Mother of God, a Friday and Country and Western Night at the Corn Store, and the management had decided she was a big enough draw to put on the payroll.”
Voice is everything. This line transports us to Southern America and it’s clear the narration will have a lot of personality.
“The first time I kissed Marcel he tasted of the sea.”
No fancy vocabulary, but this sentence is still gorgeous. It’s sensory and lyrical and romantic.
“I dipped the needle into the pot of dark brown ink and pressed its tip against my ankle, spreading the skin taut as a drum.”
A lot of our agent judges say they like to be thrown straight into action, maybe because so many unpublished novels open with abstract interior thought and it feels like the writer is trying too hard. This specifically written action is great and gets us interested in the POV character.
“As far as breakups went, I was pretty sure this one was amicable.”
It’s great if your opener can give an idea of the genre. This humorous, voice-led first line makes me think of a contemporary rom-com.
“The cloak had been made with love and the living room curtains, one long, cold winter many years ago.”
You need to be careful with abstract nouns in your opening paragraph, but the combination of the abstract noun ‘love’ and concrete noun ‘living room curtains’ gives this line a real punch.
“What I don’t understand is why everyone’s kept it a secret for so long. Why you’ve all let it get so BIG.”
The ‘you’ is what got us here. You feel like the author is speaking to you, like you’re part of this community. With one important difference: you don’t know what the secret is!
“There are three things you need to have when working at a funeral home: a strong stomach, a morbid sense of humour, and a better-than-functioning set of nose plugs.”
This reveals an intriguing setting and tells us a lot about the protagonist.
“I collected the first bone when I was nine. This fact was not mentioned in court.”
These two short sentences convey the premise perfectly: the protagonist is a collector of bones. It mentions the beginning of their origin story, alludes to the core conflict, and leaves us wanting to find out what happened.
“It is not a dream. It is a memory that I remember when I am asleep.”
This one gets away with being a bit vague and abstract because it’s just a really impactful sentence! You can imagine that this particular memory will play a significant role in the story.
“One Friday night in winter, my brother went out and never came back; I was there and watched him leave. How strange that sounds; so like an ending, and yet so like a beginning, too.”
There’s so much in this idea of the inciting incident being a beginning and an ending too. For the brother and for the protagonist. For the reader, of course, it’s just a beginning, and it’s a great one!
“A long thin driveway bears right into a cluster of trees towards a house, a grand house, tucked away like a privileged child, nestled in its own world of fresh air and fields.”
Another one using figurative language to great effect, without going overboard. If you’re going to describe the setting in your first line, you need to do it in a way that hints at story. This does that really well.
“She squeezed beige liquid onto her fist and pushed his hair back with her wrist, and Hal felt he was being blessed.”
This is exquisite without feeling forced. The defamiliarisation of the foundation, the specificity of her action, the serenity of the word ‘blessed’ … and I love the idea of this woman, or perhaps girl, doing Hal’s makeup.
“There were many reasons why they had decided to rob the bubblegum machine, but the main one was that Mick McElroy had been taken into care.”
This sentence has such a nice rhythm. The act of robbing a bubblegum machine is the perfect crime for a lovable but troubled pair of youngsters. Again, it’s specificity that makes it shine.
At BPA, we believe positive feedback is as important as constructive critique! Hopefully this post has helped you to think about what makes a brilliant first line (and appreciate that they come in many flavours). To see this year’s #BPAfavouritelines, follow us on Twitter or look up the hashtag. Submit to the BPA First Novel Award by May 31st for your chance to be featured – and to win agent introductions and cash prizes.
Further reading: Liz Nugent’s Top 10 First Lines in Fiction