What Goes into a Killer First Line? And How to Craft Your Own!

What Goes into a Killer First Line? And How to Craft Your Own!

Guest Post by Desiree Villena

You’ve meticulously outlined a plot, researched the concept, even started thinking about how you might go about publishing your book — now you have to actually put pen to paper and write the first sentence. This should be as simple as putting one foot in front of the other, right?

Alas, it’s rarely such. But if this is the moment you’ve found yourself lost for words, you’re definitely not alone!

Great first lines come in many shapes and sizes, depending on variables like genre, aim, and the events of your opening scene. Rather than giving a one-size-fits-all approach, I’d like to analyze the art of the opener with a few examples, so that you can decide upon the most slick and stylish opening line for your story.

Option #1: Establish a simple fact or event

Sometimes, less is more. Rather than conjuring up something dramatic and unforgettable, sometimes your best option is getting something — anything — down on paper! Opening a scene in the clearest way possible establishes narrative directness, rather than appearing convoluted and overwrought. For an example of an opener that’s both attention-grabbing and fact-based, let’s look at Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend:

This morning Rino telephoned. I thought he wanted money again and I was ready to say no.”

Here, Ferrante states an event that has occurred and explains it in simple terms. In the first part of this opener, we learn of the event: a conversation, which we soon find out is between an elderly lady and a young man, about a woman who has suddenly gone missing. In the second part, we get a sense of the interesting dynamic between the two, via the protagonist’s assumption over what the call is about. Simple, yet highly effective.

Option #2: Jump into the action

Forget what you were taught at school — starting with exposition is not a hard-and-fast rule when it comes to kicking off your story. In fact, many story structures advocate for cutting straight to the action to establish pace, intrigue, and excitement early on. It also allows for more sophisticated incorporation of character development and backstory as the plot develops.

Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You is a great example of establishing the crunch point of a story in the opener:

 “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.”

This line is short, sparse, and shocking. The reader immediately understands the crisis upon which the story will likely hinge. It doesn’t waste any time in grabbing the reader’s attention and setting the stage for the mystery that is about to unfold.

Option #3: Set the mood with something literary

That said, a little bit of exposition can be a more appropriate way to begin your story — particularly if it’s a slowburn or a more lighthearted form of fiction, like a romance or a slice-of-life drama. This can be done through the use of a literary device, like a simile or metaphor, or a detailed description of a place or a character.

For example, John Kennedy Tooles’ A Confederacy of Dunces starts with a physical description of Ignatius J. Reilly, Toole’s unpleasant, flatulent, work-shy protagonist:

“A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head.”

This opening instantly establishes the humorous tone of this cult classic, and shows Reilly to be a character with silly and somewhat foolish dimensions. It also figures as a more subtle illustration of the general tone of the story — comical yet description-heavy.

To use a metaphor of my own, this approach might be considered a dimming of the stage lights, rather than setting up the props! Illustrative, expressive writing with a touch of symbolism effectively establishes the ambience of a scene and allows for a gentle build up to the action.

Option #4: Impart some thoughtful philosophy

Some of the most memorable lines in fiction take a more worldly approach. This will require more expansive thinking than the other three tactics — but, when done well, can imbue your writing with an air of authority and significance that goes beyond the relaying of a series of events. L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between is a classic, oft-cited example of this type of opener:

 “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

In this case, Hartley alludes to the regret-tinged tale of his elderly protagonist, Leo, concerning a fateful visit to the country estate of his childhood friend Marcus. Rather than expressing a point of action, this kind of opening steps back from the plot and expresses a sentiment that resonates with the narrative arc of the story. If done well, this can be a stylish and thoughtful way to foreshadow the morale of your story, affirm a particular tone, and impart some wisdom onto your readers. Creative and classy.

If you’re still stumped, fear not! You can start writing your book or story at whichever point you feel is most clarified in your mind — beginning, middle, or end. As long as you keep plugging away, you’re bound to come up with something sooner or later!


The author of this guest post, Desiree Villena, is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects self-publishing authors with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, Desiree enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories.


The Time Is Write: How Making Time to Write Each Day Helps Keep Me Grounded

The Time Is Write: How Making Time to Write Each Day Helps Keep Me Grounded (Guest post by Desiree Villena)

Lately, time seems to have lost all its usual meaning. When everything is done at home, the divide between work and leisure becomes hazy — one long, delirious blur without our typical routines to divide the days. This can make it hard to maintain momentum in your writing, especially when you feel a million competing voices in your head telling you all the things you should be doing: working harder, spending time with family, reading more, sleeping more…

I, too, often struggle with how to balance my creative projects with personal and professional demands. But though structure may have vanished, there’s still the same number of hours in a day. I’ve found that carving out dedicated writing time, even if it’s just a little bit every day, helps me regain a sense of meaning — I can’t control what goes on in the world outside, but I can control what happens in my stories.

Whether you’re writing a book that you hope to publish soon or crafting tales purely for your own enjoyment, writing for even a small portion of each day can do wonders for your artistic and emotional health. Here, I outline my approach to balancing writing with my other commitments, and delve into how working on my stories keeps me from feeling overwhelmed in the chaos.

Making use of small moments

Maybe you’ve already got a consistent writing schedule that keeps you on track — but for most of us, that’s a hard thing to establish! Building a reliable writing routine has been something that plagues even the most dedicated of authors. Personally, I’ve never quite been able to commit to a strict writing routine. While sometimes I wish I could make myself write at the same time every day or hit concrete targets, life is too unpredictable, and I’ve come to realize different writing tips work for different people!

Especially when you have a full-time job, a family, or other obligations that require your time and mental energy, dedicating hours of each day simply to write can feel like an unrealistic luxury. So my philosophy is to allow myself flexibility to write when I can, taking advantage of small pockets of time. Morning runs can occasionally serve as great brainstorming sessions, and gaps between meetings can be a great time to start outlining my next chapter. I even find myself jotting down ideas while watching TV or doing chores — inspiration can strike at strange times.

Writing does not have to be a 9-to-5 job or a non-stop marathon. Everyone writes at their own pace, and little chunks of time can quickly add up to great progress. Breaking up your day with short bursts of creativity can also help replenish your energy, giving you something to look forward to throughout the day.

Keeping my vision in sight

Dedicating at least small bits of each day to writing also gives me a sense of purpose as an author. Every day, I’m asking myself to treat writing seriously, and reminding myself why I write in the first place: while it can be challenging, especially when I’m struggling with a difficult passage or trying to edit, it is also an immense joy to bring characters to life on the page.

Keeping in mind my larger vision for each project also gives me something concrete to work toward — thinking about what this short story might look like when it’s complete, or where this character arc goes. Imagining my future readers once my work is published also helps give me a sense of purpose as I try to write stories that resonate. I ask myself questions like How would I describe this book? Why does it matter to me? Keeping sight of what I’m trying to write and why I’m writing serves as a potent reminder of why my work matters, even in confusing times.

Turning each day into a non-zero day

My philosophy of writing is dedicated to the idea of the “non-zero day”: doing something each and every day to advance toward my goal, even if it’s a tiny step forward. Progress is progress, no matter how insignificant it may seem. Sometimes it can feel overwhelming to tackle a challenge like “finish a story” or “edit a draft” — setting small, achievable, goals is a great way to keep myself motivated.

I aim to do a little something every day to stay grounded in my writing habits. Even if I’m not adding a single sentence to my work in progress, I can find other ways to still develop my craft: doing research, sketching out character backstory, or reading other books for inspiration. If you’re stuck on a book you’re writing, you might spend time looking at comparable titles, thinking about how’ll market your finished work to your audience, or developing your author website — granting each day a sense of purpose.

Giving myself freedom to explore

Even with all my strategies for maintaining inspiration, writer’s block inevitably hits sometimes. When this happens, I often find it helpful to allow myself to use “imperfect words” and freewrite without filtering.

The goal of freewriting is to write unhindered by self-consciousness or the expectation that a story has to be immediately polished. I go wherever my mind takes me. That means, if I feel inspired to take a total detour from my current project by starting a story in a new genre or embodying a silly new character, I let myself go for it! Sometimes using a creative writing prompt or taking part in a writing challenge also helps me regain that spark of imagination.

I never want to lose sight of the passion that urges me to write in the first place. That’s why my approach to my writing is to make it a funhabit — like a daily treat, not a job or chore. When I feel overwhelmed by what today might hold or wonder what tomorrow might look like, writing grounds me in the present moment — harnessing the emotion and noise of the world and making today count.

Lately I have been especially grateful for each sentence I put on the page. Even as we lose our sense of time, we do not lose our sense of purpose: words have immense power, and will always make themselves heard.

Desiree Villena is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors with the world’s best publishing resources. In her spare time, Desiree enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories — and occasionally giving writerly advice! She looks forward to writing in coffee shops and libraries again soon.