How to Write a Good First Line

Diane Callahan
The Startup
Published in
13 min readJun 3, 2020


“The boats arrived in springtime, carrying the bodies of headless men.”

I once built a story entirely around that one sentence. I didn’t know anything else about the characters or plot beyond that, but I itched to discover them. I’d been following the advice of a creative writing professor, who had told me, “Write a first line that makes you want to know more.”

I became obsessed with studying first lines. After learning the openings of classic novels, I went to Barnes & Noble and thumbed through books on the center tables — the new releases and bestsellers of different genres. From my research, I composed a simple thesis:

The first line of a story should create a sense of character, conflict, setting, mood, theme, or style — or any combination thereof. Most importantly, it should make the reader ask questions.

In analyzing examples, I’m going to simplify what makes a good first line into four possible ingredients: