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How to write a great opening line

BY Discoveries
24th Nov 2021

CBC and Curtis Brown are proud to be partnering with the Women’s Prize Trust and Audible to run Discoveries, a writing development prize and programme, which offers practical support and encouragement to aspiring female novelists of all ages and backgrounds, from across the UK and Ireland.

This week we're exploring the power of opening lines. A strong first line usually does one of three things:

1. Introduce us to a protagonist.

2. Tell us when and where the story is happening.

3. Set the tone for the novel and show us what genre we’re in.

These are not hard and fast rules, some authors choose a more experimental approach to their opening and some manage to do all three things at once! To test out the theory we've collated some of our favourite first lines from recent fiction and explored the reasons why these writers are so good at hooking the reader...

Lucy Morris, Curtis Brown Literary Agent & Discoveries Judge

‘Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.’ – Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng

A cracker of a first sentence. It not only throws us straight into the plot, but also the world of the novel: the seemingly orderly suburb of Shaker Heights. Whose house was it? Why did Isabelle burn it down? And how much can we even trust the gossipy second half of that opening sentence: what actually happened?

‘They are waiting for an answer.’ – Magpie Lane, Lucy Atkins

How could you not read on past this opener? What was the question? We don’t know where we are, what’s happened, or who anyone is. But we are right there in the scene – and we are intrigued to find out.

Anna Davis, CBC's Founder & Discoveries Judge

‘When the Moon rose in the Third Northern Hall I went to the Ninth Vestibule to witness the joining of Three Tides.’ – Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Rather than try to decide on my favourite first line of all time – which I find impossible – I’ve gone for my favourite first line of this year, and it’s this one. It’s so weird – so other. A moon rises in a hall and tides meet in a vestibule – in other words, indoors … How can that be?! I’m always telling students that I like it when an opening asks a question that makes me want to read on to find the answer, and no first line does it better than this one. There is such magic here in this line – it’s fantastical, haunting, mysterious and solemn, and carrying a hint of ritual. In just one line, Susanna Clarke establishes the tone, atmosphere and setting of this story, as well as introducing its protagonist-narrator, who we’ll come to know as Piranesi. All in all, it’s a masterclass in how much heavy lifting you can get one opening sentence to do for your story.

Viola Hayden, Curtis Brown

‘Long before we discovered that he had fathered two children by two different women, one in Drimoleague and one in Clonakilty, Father James Monroe stood on the altar of the Church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea, in the parish of Goleen, West Cork, and denounced my mother as a whore.’ – The Heart’s Invisible Furies, John Boyne

This is a sprawling opening sentence, but every part has earned its place. We meet our narrator – and a mysterious ‘we’ – and you get such a strong sense of their wry voice. This is clearly Ireland and that inimitable Irishness is captured and conveyed beautifully; it’s not quite contemporary (‘long before’) but it’s rural, religious, hypocritical and vengeful. The word ‘whore’ slaps you around the face when you reach it after being lulled into a comfortable meander by the litany of descriptions. And it changes your impression of the direction of the book – now you know our narrator likely has a poor opinion of the church, rather than of their mother. Overall, a belter.

‘He was lost.’ – One Good Turn, Kate Atkinson

Who? Where? Why? Read on to find out!

Jess Molloy, Curtis Brown

'It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.' – The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss

The importance of this phrase ‘a silence of three parts’ becomes more and more apparent as the book goes on, and it is often repeated throughout the series. I love the bravery of putting something so key to the story in the first line and as a new reader you are immediately intrigued as to what it means. I also love the inclusion of ‘again’ in the first sentence, giving the reader the impression immediately that we have been here before and perhaps alluding to an element of monotony or being trapped there.

Rosie Pierce, Curtis Brown

'We didn’t believe when we first heard because you know how church folk can gossip.' – The Mothers, Brit Bennett

I love gossip, so of course I immediately wanted to read on and find out what scandal or secret had been making its way through the grapevine of the church community. I was also intrigued by the use of first-person-plural point of view. It’s a brilliantly unsettling perspective – you feel pulled into the mysterious 'we' without knowing who it is made up of.

Abby Parsons, CBC

‘Other people overwhelmed her. Strange, perhaps, for a woman who’d added four beings to the universe of her own reluctant volition, but a fact nonetheless.’ – The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo

One of my favourite reads this year and a 500-page family saga of a novel, which I think makes the idea of an opening line even more interesting: where to begin to tell the sprawling story of this large family? I love that the author chooses to begin with the mother, Marilyn, positioning her as the starting point and true beginning of the family as well as the book, as she contemplates the four beings that the rest of this novel is going to follow. I also love the casual controversy of a mother of four children who would prefer to spend her time alone, which the novel explores, too.

Ria Cagampang, CBC

'The night Effia Otcher was born into the musky heat of Fanteland, a fire raged through woods just outside her father’s compound.' – Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi

I love how well this opener immediately transports you into Effia's story. Gyasi packs so much into just one sentence. You get character, time, and place, and there's already a sense of history and atmosphere right out of the gate!

‘She opened the portal, and the mind met her more than halfway.’ – No One Is Talking About This, Patricia Lockwood

I adore how almost dream-like and poetic this first line feels. And like many great first lines, this one immediately prompts once you read it. What is ‘the portal’? Is it a metaphor? Or a literal portal? Where is it leading her? Well, you’ll only find out if you read on!

Katie Smart, CBC

‘When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.’ – Circe, Madeline Miller

This opening is hugely atmospheric and a great example of a first-person perspective. We are brilliantly introduced to the title character Circe, and want to know more about who and what she is. Straight away we know that this will be the story of an outsider, a pioneer exploring an identity yet to exist.

'The morning one of the lost twins returned to Mallard, Lou LeBon ran to the diner to break the news, and even now, many years later, everyone remembers the shock of sweaty Lou pushing through the glass doors, chest heaving, neckline darkened with his own effort.' – The Vanishing Half, Brit Bennett

The reader is transported into the heart of the story and into the heart of Mallard. The reader immediately gets the sense of the small town setting. I love the way Bennett is weaving the story by reminiscing, she hints that the tale we are about to read is so important that the details of it live on 'many years later'.

Danni Georgiou, CBC

‘The circus arrives without warning.’ – The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern

This opening line is so simple but effective. It’s mysterious and promises intrigue, magic and enchantment. It is only five words long, but already you are hooked and want to know more. What is this circus?

For more inspiration, check out 10 of the most iconic opening lines in literature:

‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’ – Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ – 1984, George Orwell
‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.’ – I Capture The Castle, Dodie Smith
‘In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.’ – The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
‘It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.’ – The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
‘Call me Ishmael.’ – Moby-Dick, Herman Melville
‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’ – Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen
‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ – Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
‘124 was spiteful. Full of a baby's venom.’ – Beloved, Toni Morrison
‘Marley was dead: to begin with.’ – A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

We hope these great first lines have inspired you to work on the opening of your novel. To enter the Discoveries Prize you'll need the first 10,000 words of your novel and a synopsis. Find out more.

Tweet us your favourite opening lines from fiction @cbcreative and @CBGBooks!