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Great first lines are a good place to start when writing. At their best, first lines capture attention, create intrigue and cue readers what to expect if they keep reading.

One of the most memorable first lines of all time was penned by Charles Dickens in The Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” A close second comes from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. And there is J.M. Barrie’s opening of Peter Pan: “All children, except one, grow up”.

A contemporary master of first lines in novels is two-time Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner Colson Whitehead. His first novel, The Intuitionist, begins: “It’s a new elevator, freshly pressed to the rails, and it’s not built to fall this fast.” His 2014 novel, The Noble Hustle, invites readers with: “I have a good poker face because I am half dead inside.”  His next book to be published, Harlem Shuffle, starts, “Ray Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked.”

Great first lines aren’t just for novels. Journalists are taught to put the best fact first in a lead sentence. In public affairs, the first line of white papers and op-eds sets the tone for the key message. In speeches, the opening line can draw in an audience or turn it off.

First lines aren’t everything in writing, but they are important. They deserve consideration, craftsmanship and care. If you don’t hook an audience on your first line, you may never get another chance to dangle your bait.

There are lots of theories about writing. The most important fact to remember is that theories don’t make writers. Writing makes writers. Writing great first lines isn’t magic; it’s hard work.

The process of writing demands thought, honesty, clarity, perseverance and an unquenchable commitment to editing what you write, over and over, as often as necessary, and probably more than is necessary. And it all begins at the beginning – the first line.

Cliff Hall in The Writing Cooperative channeled Dickens when he observed, “It was the best of lines, it was the worst of lines”. As Dickens could attest, the space between the “the best of lines” and “the worst of lines” is vast. The skeletons of reader inattention dot the valleys in between.

Against all hope, there is no guidebook or code for writing great first lines. The best you’ve got to go on is the experience of writers who have written great first lines, like Colson Whitehead.

There are lots of theories about writing. The most important fact to remember is that theories don’t make writers. Writing makes writers. Writing great first lines isn’t magic; it’s hard work.

In a recent interview for 60 Minutes, Whitehead described his approach:

  • Step one is coming up with a topic.
  • Step two is researching the topic.
  • Step three is sketching the piece he will write.
  • The last step, drawing on the mastery of his subject and the outline of what he wants to say, is to craft the first line.

That may seem weird to write the first line last. But it makes sense. Songwriters often come up with their melodies before their lyrics. Great lines like “Give me liberty or give me death” don’t have much meaning without their context. 

Great first lines don’t just magically happen. Writing is a craft, not a calling. Like any piece of art, great first lines are written by writers who are diligent and disciplined. If the task is important enough or a story that must be told, then it’s worth the effort to give it an engaging first line.

Great writers find unique ways to bridge the gap between their desire to tell a story and the ambit of the reader’s eye. Bridges are only valuable if people trust them and are willing to cross them. The writer’s great challenge after coming up with a story idea, researching it, breathing life into its details and mastering its intricacies is reduce that creation to a single, irresistible first line. Out of darkness, it must shine an inviting light. It must tell, but only with a hint, of the great tale, op-ed or speech to follow.

My best advice: You aren’t done writing until your first line crackles. Your readers will thank you for the fire you’ve created.

Here are some recent examples of great first lines in op-eds published by The New York Times and The Washington Post:

  • “I spent my life covering wars, but this battle was fought at home.”
  • “A policy that sustains people in joblessness is not ultimately anti-poverty.”
  • “My statement that ‘life means life’ for inmates was completely wrong.”
  • “One man, six presidents and the fragile truce between politics and science.”
  • “He has only a basic ballpoint pen and letter-size sheets of paper.”

These examples share an inviting quality of drawing in readers with bold, often statements. They also are simple, short and easy to understand.

If you want a list of great first lines in novel, check out