Killer First Lines

By Alex English

Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve
Whether your first line comes to you in a flash or you slave over it for hours, we all know that those first few words of a novel are vitally important. A first line can suck the reader in or turn them right off. Of course, the rest of your novel needs to be great too, but a dull first sentence might mean your manuscript languishes on the slushpile or even ends up in the bin. Is your first line a killer first line?  

1. Does it have tension? 

‘There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.’ The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman. The key to a killer first line is that it makes you want to read on. A great first line raises more questions than it answers. Whose hand is it? Why is it holding a knife? And what horrible things is it going to do with that knife?

"The key to a killer first line is that it makes you want to read on."

2. Does it fit the genre? 

‘Long ago, on the wild and windy isle of Berk, a smallish Viking with a longish name stood up to his ankles in snow.’ How to Train Your Dragon, Cressida Cowell. Hands and knives are all very well, but if you’re writing a picture book for three-year-olds that just won’t work. Read Cressida Cowell’s first line and you instantly know you’re reading a funny middle-grade novel. The first line tells the reader exactly what to expect from the rest of the book.

3. Does it tell you about the main character? 

'Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents,' grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.’ Little Women, Louisa M Alcott. When I polled SCBWI members on their favourite first lines, there was a clear winner. The first line of Louisa M Alcott’s Little Women immediately shows us something about the protagonist Jo’s character and situation.

"The first line tells the reader exactly what to expect from the rest of the book."

4. Or throw you into the action? 

'It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.' Mortal Engines, Philip Reeve. Phillip Reeve doesn’t tell us anything about his protagonist, but he certainly plunges us straight into the action. From the off we are part of the chase, and we know this is no ordinary London. An effective start to a gritty and fast paced book.

5. Does it tell the reader something about your novel? 

‘There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.’ Holes, Louis Sachar. The first line of Louis Sachar’s Holes tells us a (w)hole lot about the book in just a few words. It captures the dry, witty, pared-down voice of the novel perfectly. It also tells us, or rather shows us, that Camp Green Lake is going to be no holiday camp. Finally, it gives us a hint that something isn’t quite right at this camp.

What are your favourite first lines from children’s books? What makes a killer first line? Do you slave over your first line or does it just pop into your head? We'd love to hear from you in the comments below!

Alex English is a freelance journalist and copywriter from London. By day she writes for national papers, magazines and commercial clients, mostly on food. By night she wrestles with her first novel - a middle-grade fantasy. She occasionally dabbles in picture books.


  1. "Sylvia Markey cradled her cat's head in her lap. Just the head."

    I may have paraphrased this as I haven't looked at Barbara Paul's 'The Fourth Wall' in years but that first line (well, okay, two, if you're going to be picky...) has lived with me for a couple of decades now.

    I judge my own against this one - and am always found lacking. :-(

  2. I have to mention Patrick Ness, The Knife of Never Letting Go:
    'The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don't got nothing much to say.'
    Brilliant first line.

  3. Thanks Sandra and Kathy for those two. Interesting.

    Barbara Paul's opening - Great first line, do I want to read on. No.

    Patrick Ness' again, brilliant, so get the voice, raises questions. But, for me, this was one of those books where the voice slowed my reading to the extent that I failed to get past the first three chapters - shocking, I know.

  4. Sandra Lawrence8 May 2013 at 00:09

    Ha - yes - if you're not into Gothic Horror, look away now with that Fourth Wall line. Am intrigued by the first line of the Patrick Ness, almost as much as the title. I wish I could do titles...


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