Writing craft

Writing first lines: 100 bestsellers’ lessons

When telling a story, your opening sentence needs to be catchy, so readers continue. The best first lines of books show us the common devices authors use to grab our curiosity. We analyzed 100 New York Times bestsellers’ first lines to share the following insights:

When telling a story, your opening sentence needs to be catchy, so readers continue. The best first lines of books show us the common devices authors use to grab our curiosity. We analyzed 100 New York Times bestsellers’ first lines to share the following insights:

1. Introduce interesting characters in your opening sentence

Many things make people interesting. Controversial views. Strange appearances. Surprising talents. Bold moves. Hidden vulnerabilities.

Many of the first lines we studied introduced characters in the opening description or action. You can read all the examples in the sample at the end of this article. There were characters who:

  • Play exotic-sounding instruments like the bouzouki
  • Eavesdrop
  • Dig graves
  • Perform multiple surgeries every day
  • Sneak off from relatives’ wedding with waitresses

From the above examples, we can see characters can be heroic (or flawed) from first introduction. You can establish these facets of your characters using description, opening dialogue, or internal monologue. Read the examples at the end for inspiration.

[Brainstorm interesting characters using the ‘Characters’ section of our step-by-step story outlining tool.]

2. Use descriptive verbs

Generally, in the 100 first lines studied, there were far more verbs than adjectives. Because beginnings so often focus on action – the inciting action that sets the story in motion, to be precise.

Look at this word cloud we made of all the verbs in the 100 first line examples:

Most common verbs in the opening sentences of 100 New York Times bestsellers | Now Novel
Verbs used in 100 NYT bestsellers’ first lines

There are many strongly descriptive verbs, such as ‘pull’, ‘bubbling’, ‘hate’, ‘knocked’, ‘stared’ and ‘slipped’. Some verbs suggest motivation or desire: ‘wanted’, ‘asked’, ‘called’. Others suggest force, changing states or temperatures, simmering resentments, cautious movements.

Often opening lines of books intrigue us with action words that give even simple movements (such as pulling a car into a drive, or ‘slowing to a crawl’ as in example 47 ) extra mood and tone.

3. Describe settings and people using precise language

The opening of a story is not always the best place for expansive, slow-moving description. Many of the first lines studied contained no adjectives at all, for example. This is not a rule, of course. See, for example, Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s opening line to The Nest, in which she creates a sense of claustrophobic excess at a lavish wedding (example 95 below) by describing the food and wedding-goers in minute detail.

Opening with copious descriptive details thus may serve an intentional purpose. Many other opening lines remain action-focused, however, using single adjective or simile to describe and introduce a character, for example.

Sometimes describing a single object is enough to suggest an entire theme, or capture the zeitgeist of a time in history.

See, for example, the opening line to There there by Tommy Orange (number 57 below). Orange describes an image of a Native American man used as a test pattern on TV in the 70s to evoke a time when cultural appropriation and (mis)representation in the media weren’t debated as widely and as often as they are today.

Choosing the right adjectives

Consider this word cloud of the most frequent adjectives used in the 100 story openings analyzed:

Most used adjectives in opening lines from 100 NYT bestsellers | Now Novel
Most common adjectives used in 100 New York Times bestsellers’ opening lines.

Simple colours predominate: Black limousines and kevlar vests, white bronco sedans or the white of a city’s tower gleaming in sunlight. Or length – long hair, long travels. Or age and size – old, young, adult, retired, small.

Sometimes a single period-specific adjective is enough to initially convey the time period of your setting (see Blake Crouch’s reference to an ‘art deco’ tower for example, a style of architecture that rose to prominence after World War I and drew on modernist influences). Remember that you can save fuller description and more detail until after your main inciting action has occurred.

4. Begin with suspenseful or mysterious actions

Even the most mundane action may become suspenseful in the right author’s hands. See for example (in example number 43 by Joseph Fink) how a character not enjoying her turkey sandwich can create a suspenseful opening line (as we wonder what’s eating her).

Some of the mysterious and suspenseful situations and actions occurring in the opening lines we analyzed include:

  • Leaflets raining from the sky (example 100)
  • Two men talking about some mysterious subject in the dead of night (example 22)
  • A character being surrounded by dead bodies on a serene day (example 18)

Mystery and suspense aren’t only found in dead bodies and crime scenes, of course. Sometimes it’s a mystery as small as the untold reason why a character isn’t loving her sandwich.

5. Leave some significance to reveal later

Many intriguing story openings give us just enough partial information to want to know more. Some of the questions we might have after reading the 100 opening sentences below:

  • Why does the limousine need curtains? (ex. 39)
  • Why is the transport plane a ‘piece of shit’? (ex. 4)
  • Why is the protagonist wearing fancy shoes if they’re so uncomfortable? (ex. 11)
  • Who did the narrator nearly go back for (and back where)? (ex. 21)
  • Why are the narrator’s hands shaking on the steering wheel? (ex. 27)

One thing almost all of the opening lines achieve is that they leave us needing more information.

6. Give context for the story to come

Context is a key ingredient of storytelling. The circumstances and background situations that explain, in part, what could or couldn’t happen (no A.I. in the year 1500!)

Consider this word cloud of the most common nouns in opening sentences in the 100 New York Times bestsellers examined:

Most frequent nouns in the opening sentences of bestselling novels |  Now Novel
Most common nouns in opening lines of 100 NYT bestsellers

The word ‘year’ is the largest (indicating the highest use count) for good reason. Many opening lines refer to the specific year or time of year, giving setting context for the story (for example, opening number 7 below where Sarah Blake personifies the seasons).

Place is an important part of context. From the image above you can see that many first lines mention places where memorable actions in our lives unfold: home, cities, streets, clubs, villages, cars.

Backstory is another useful type of context to open with. Giving the reader a seminal event from a character’s earlier life may help to explain later decisions, desires, fears and emotions (see example #66 from Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight).

Study sample: 100 first line examples by bestselling authors

Below you can read the sample first lines for books chosen at random from recent years in Hawes’ New York Times bestseller database here. We’ve included each book’s blurb to give a general idea of each novel’s subject matter:

1. Sunset Beach by Mary Kay Andrews (2019):

Blurb: Drue Campbell inherits a run-down beach bungalow and takes a job at her estranged father’s personal injury attorney office.

First sentence:

Drue turned the key in the ignition and the white Bronco’s engine gave a dispirited cough, and then nothing.

2. The Summer Guests by Mary Alice Monroe (2019):

Blurb: A hurricane threatening the coasts of Florida and South Carolina leads to a group of strangers sheltering together in a home.

First sentence:

The storm originated as a tropical wave off the coast of Africa, but during the next forty-eight hours, it grew highly organized.

3. The Night Window by Dean Koontz (2019):

Blurb: The fifth book in the Jane Hawk series. The former F.B.I. agent pursues a slew of bad guys, including a Vegas mob boss.

First sentence:

The triple-pane floor-to-ceiling windows of Hollister’s study frame the rising plain to the west, the foothils, and the distant Rocky Mountains that were long-ago born from the earth in cataclysm, now dark and majestic against a sullen sky.

4. Backlash by Brad Thor (2019):

Blurb: Cut off from any support, Scot Harvath fights to get his revenge.

First sentence:

The transport plane, like everything else in Russia, was a piece of shit.

5. Neon Prey by John Sandford (2019):

Blurb: The 29th book in the Prey series. Lucas Davenport goes after a serial killer.

First sentence:

Deese was a thin man.

6. Someone Knows by Lisa Scottoline (2019):

Blurb: A dark secret emerges when Allie Garvey returns home to attend a childhood friend’s funeral.

First sentence:

Nobody tells you that you’ll do things when you’re young that are so stupid, so unbelievably stupid, so horrifically stupid that years later you won’t be able to believe it.

7. The Guest Book by Sarah Blake (2019):

Blurb: Evie Milton uncovers a story going back a couple generations that may shatter a family myth.

First sentence:

The fall had turned to winter and then back again without conviction, November’s chill taken up and dropped like a woman never wearing the right coat until finally December laughed and took hold.

8. Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan (2019):

Blurb: In an alternative 1980s London, a love triangle develops between a couple and a synthetic human.

First sentence:

It was religious yearning granted hope, it was the holy grail of science.

9. The Most Fun we Ever Had by Claire Lombardo (2019):

Blurb: The highs and lows of the four Sorenson sisters are illuminated when Jonah Bendt, who was given up in a closed adoption by one of them, arrives.

First sentence:

Other people overwhelmed her.

10. The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo (2019):

Blurb: In 1930s colonial Malaysia, dangers encroach upon a dressmaker’s apprentice and a houseboy as they seek to help others close to them.

First sentence:

The old man is dying.

11. Connections in Death by J.D. Robb (2019):

Blurb: Eve Dallas scours tattoo parlors and strip joints for clues to the cause of Lyle Pickering’s mysterious death.

First sentence:

The legalized torture of socializing lined right up with a premeditated murder when you added the requirement of fancy shoes.

12. Mission Critical by Mark Greaney (2019):

Blurb: The eighth book in the Gray Man series. Court Gentry must track down assassins.

First sentence: The flight attendant standing at the top of the jet stairs slipped a hand behind her back and threaded her fingers around the grip of the pistol tucked under her jacket.

13. The New Iberia Blues by James Lee Burke (2019):

Blurb: Detective Dave Robicheaux and his new partner Bailey Ribbons investigate the death of a young woman by crucifixion.

First sentence:

Desmond Cormier’s success story was an improbable one, even among the many self-congratulatory rags-to-riches tales we tell ourselves in the ongoing saga of our green republic, one that is forever changing yet forever the same, a saga that also includes the graves of Shiloh and cinders from aboriginal villages.

14. Miracle at St. Andrews by James Patterson and Peter de Jonge (2019):

Blurb: A former professional golfer visits the course in Scotland.

First sentence:

For the fifth time on the back nine, my caddy, John Abate, pulls his green military-issue binoculars from the side pouch, and rather than locking in on a target on the 16th hole, the one we’re playing, squints into the distance at the leaderboard behind the 9th green.

15. Recursion by Blake Crouch (2019):

Blurb: A dark force alters people’s memories so drastically that reality itself starts to shift.

First sentence:

Barry Sutton pulls over into the fire lane at the main entrance of the Poe Building, an Art Deco tower glowing white in the illumination of its exterior sconces.

16. Turning Point by Danielle Steel (2019):

Blurb: Four American trauma doctors face difficult choices when they join a mass-casualty training program in Paris

First sentence:

Bill Browning had been on duty in the emergency room at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center for five hours and had just finished surgery on his third gunshot wound of the day.

17. Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid (2019):

Blurb: A fictional oral history charting the rise and fall of a ’70s rock ’n’ roll band.

First sentence:

Elaine Chang (biographer, author of Daisy Jones: Wild Flower): Here is what is so captivating about Daisy Jones even before she was “Dasiy Jones.”

18. Redemption by David Baldacci (2019):

Blurb: The fifth book in the Memory Man series. The first man Amos Decker put behind bars asks to have his name cleared.

First sentence:

On a refreshingly brisk, beautifully clear fall evening, Amos Decker was surrounded by dead bodies.

19. The Big Kahuna by Janet Evanovich and Peter Evanovich (2019):

Blurb: The sixth book in the Fox and O’Hare series. An F.B.I. agent teams up with a con man to search for a Silicon Valley billionaire.

First sentence:

Kate O’Hare’s favorite outfit was her blue windbreaker with the letters FBI written in yellow on the back, worn over a black T-shirt and matching black Kevlar vest.

20. Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner (2019):

Blurb: Toby Fleishman is forced to confront his own perception of his actions when his ex-wife drops off their kids at his place and disappears.

First sentence:

Toby Fleishman awoke one morning inside the city he’d lived in all his adult life and which was suddenly somehow now crawling with women who wanted him.

21. The Last House Guest by Megan Miranda (2019):

Blurb: Littleport resident Avery Greer and visitor Sadie Loman become good friends until Sadie mysteriously dies. Avery must fight the clock to clear her name and uncover the real killer.

First sentence:

I almost went back for her.

22. Cari Mora by Thomas Harris (2019):

Blurb: Hans-Peter Schneider pauses his ghastly deeds to seek a dead man’s gold hidden under a Miami mansion, but its caretaker’s surprising skills prove daunting.

First sentence:

Two men talking in the middle of the night.

23. City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert (2019):

Blurb: An 89-year-old Vivian Morris looks back at the direction her life took when she entered the 1940s New York theater scene.

First sentence:

In the summer of 1940, when I was nineteen years old and an idiot, my parents sent me to live with my Aunt Peg, who owned a theater company in New York City.

24. Run Away by Harlan Coben (2019):

Blurb: A family is torn apart when the daughter becomes addicted to drugs and goes missing.

First sentence:

Simon sat on a bench in Central Park – in Strawberry Fields, to be more precise – and felt his heart shatter.

25. Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner (2019):

Blurb: The story of two sisters, Jo and Bethie Kaufman, and their life experiences as the world around them changes drastically from the 1950s.

First sentence:

Her cell phone rang as they were on their way out of the movies.

26. Lost Roses by Martha Hall Kelly (2019):

Blurb: In 1914, the New York socialite Eliza Ferriday works to help White Russian families escape from the revolution.

First sentence:

I only put the centipede in Eliza’s slipper since I thought she was stealing my sister Sofya from me.

27. Never Tell by Lisa Gardner (2019):

Blurb: D.D. Warren and Flora Dane investigate whether a pregnant woman shot and killed her husband.

First sentence:

By the time I pull my car into the garage, my hands are shaking on the wheel.

28. Tom Clancy: Enemy Contact by Mike Maden (2019):

Blurb: Jack Ryan Jr.’s latest adventures take him on a mission to stop an international criminal conspiracy and deal with tragic news.

First sentence:

He was a Scorpion.

29. The Wedding Guest by Jonathan Kellerman (2019):

Blurb: Milo Sturgis and Alex Delaware investigate the death of a stranger at a wedding reception.

First sentence:

No Regrets.

30. The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides (2019):

Blurb: Theo Faber looks into the mystery of a famous painter who stops speaking after shooting her husband.

First sentence:

I don’t know why I’m writing this.

31. Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James (2019):

Blurb: A loner named Tracker teams up with a group of unusual characters in search of a mysterious boy.

First sentence:

The child is dead.

32. Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes (2019):

Blurb: In a seaside town in Maine, a former Major League pitcher and a grieving widow assess their pasts.

First sentence:

Go now, or you’ll never go, Evvie warned herself.

33. The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict (2019):

Blurb: Hedy Lamarr flees to Hollywood where she becomes a screen star and develops technology that might combat the Nazis.

First sentence:

My lids fluttered open, but the floodlights blinded me for a moment.

34. Summer of ’69 by Elin Hilderbrand (2019):

Blurb: The Levin family undergoes dramatic events with a son in Vietnam, a daughter in protests and dark secrets hiding beneath the surface.

First sentence:

When the Selective Service notice comes for Tiger, Kate’s first instinct is to throw it away.

35. The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin (2019):

Blurb: A family crisis tests the bonds and ideals of a renowned poet and her siblings.

First sentence:

At first I believed the girl to be an apparition.

36. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong (2019):

Blurb: Little Dog writes a letter to a mother who cannot read, revealing a family history.

First sentence:

Let me begin again.

37. Fall or, Dodge in Hell by Neal Stephenson (2019):

Blurb: A dead multibillionaire’s brain is scanned and turned back on at a time when humans live as digital souls.

First sentence:

Dodge became conscious.

38. Big Sky by Kate Atkinson (2019):

Blurb: Detective Jackson Brodie uncovers a sinister network in a sleepy seaside town.

First sentence:

‘So what now?’ he asked.

39. The Other Woman by Daniel Silva (2018):

Blurb: Gabriel Allon, the art restorer and assassin, fights the Russians to decide the fate of postwar global order.

First sentence:

The car was a Zil limousine, long and black, with pleated curtains in the rear windows.

40. Magic Triumphs by Ilona Andrews (2018):

Blurb: The 10th book in the Kate Daniels series. After starting a family with a former Beast Lord, Kate faces the threat of war from an ancient enemy.

First sentence:

The pain spread from my hips into my whole body, pulling my bones apart.

41. The Outsider by Stephen King (2018):

Blurb: A detective investigates a seemingly wholesome member of the community when an 11-year-old boy’s body is found.

First sentence:

It was an unmarked car, just some nondescript American sedan a few years old, but the blackwall tyres and the three men inside gave it away for what it was.

42. All We Ever Wanted by Emily Giffin (2018):

Blurb: A scandal sends members of two Nashville families into chaos.

First sentence:

It started out as a typical Saturday night.

43. Alice Isn’t Dead by Joseph Fink (2018):

Blurb: Keisha Taylor takes a job as a long-haul truck driver to search for her missing wife.

First sentence:

Keisha Taylor settled back into the booth and tried to enjoy her turkey club.

44. Timeless by R.A. Salvatore (2018):

Blurb: Zaknafein and Drizzt must overcome their differences to protect their loved ones.

“My lady Zhindia,” the demon said, leaving a trail of bubbling sludge as she slid from the summoning pentagram of House Melarn, the Eighth House of the drow city of Menzoberranzan.

45. Look Alive Twenty-Five by Janet Evanovich (2018):

Blurb: Blurb: The 25th book in the Stephanie Plum series.

First sentence:

Vincent Plum Bail Bonds is one of several storefront businesses on Hamilton Avenue in Trenton, New Jersey.

46. Still Me by Jojo Moyes (2018):

Blurb: Louisa Clark moves to New York and is torn between high society and the life she enjoys at a vintage clothing store.

First sentence:

It was the moustache that reminded me I was no longer in England: A solid, grey millipede firmly obscuring the man’s upper lip; a Village People moustache, a cowboy moustache, the miniature head of broom that meant business.

47. Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny (2018):

Blurb: While on suspension, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is made an executor of a stranger’s will and tries to keep a deadly narcotic off Montreal’s streets.

First sentence:

Armand Gamache slowed his car to a crawl, then stopped on the snow-covered secondary road.

48. Past Tense by Lee Child (2018):

Blurb: Jack Reacher explores the New England town where his father was born.

First sentence:

Jack Reacher caught the last of the summer sun in a small town on the coast of Maine, and then, like the birds in the sky above him, began his long migration south.

49. Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver (2018):

Blurb: Intertwined stories of two families who live in different centuries on the same street corner in Vineland, N.J.

First sentence:

“The simplest thing would be to tear it down,” the man said.

50. The Last Time I Lied by Riley Sager (2018):

Blurb: A painter is in danger when she returns to the summer camp where some of her childhood friends disappeared.

First sentence:

I paint the girls in the same order.

Michael Cunningham quote on opening sentences and authority

51. Elevation by Stephen King (2018):

Blurb: A man who is losing weight without getting thinner forms an unlikely alliance with his neighbors who are dealing with prejudices.

First sentence:

Scott Carey knocked on the door of the Ellis condo unit, and Bob Ellis (everyone in Highland Acres still called him Doctor Bob, although he was five years retired) let him in.

52. Stygian by Sherrilyn Kenyon (2018):

Blurb: The 29th book in the Dark-Hunter series. A trained slayer forms alliances with enemies.

First sentence:

Tears blinded Braith as she stared through the bars to see what they’d done to her once proud husband.

53. An Anonymous Girl by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen (2018):

Blurb: Jessica Farris’s life unravels when she signs up for Dr. Shields’s psychology study.

First sentence:

You’re Invited: Seeking women aged 18 to 32 to participate in a study on ethics and morality conducted by a preeminent NYC psychiatrist.

54. You Don’t Own Me by Mary Higgins Clark and Alafair Burke (2018):

Blurb: A television producer investigates the murder of a physician and whether it was his wife who killed him.

First sentence:

Sixty-year-old Caroline Radcliffe nearly dropped one of the saucers she was carefully stacking in the overstuffed sideboard when she heard a bellow from the den.

55. Every Breath by Nicholas Sparks (2018):

Blurb: Difficult choices surface when Hope Anderson and Tru Walls meet in a North Carolina seaside town.

First sentence:

On the morning of September 9, 1990, Tru Walls stepped outside and surveyed a morning sky that was the color of fire near the horizon.

56. A Witch Elm by Tana French (2018):

Blurb: After Toby Hennessy retreats to his family’s ancestral home, a skull discovered in the backyard exposes his family’s past.

First sentence:

I’ve always considered myself to be, basically, a lucky person.

57. There There by Tommy Orange (2018):

Blurb: A multigenerational story exploring the plight of the urban Native American.

First sentence:

There was an Indian head, the head of an Indian, the drawing of the head of a headressed, long-haired Indian depicted, drawn by an unknown artist in 1939, broadcast until the late 1970s to American TVs everywhere after all the shows ran out.

58. Dark Sacred Night by Michael Connelly (2018):

Blurb: Detective Renée Ballard teams up with the retired detective Harry Bosch, who is working on a cold case.

First sentence:

The patrol officer had left the front door open.

59. Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty (2018):

Blurb: A romance writer becomes fascinated by the owner and director of a health resort.

First sentence:

‘I’m fine,’ said the woman.

60. The Reckoning by John Grisham (2018):

Blurb: A decorated World War II veteran shoots and kills a pastor.

First sentence:

On a cold morning in early October of 1946, Pete Banning awoke before sunrise and had no thoughts of going back to sleep.

61. Pieces of Her by Karin Slaughter (2018):

Blurb: When a violent incident reveals her mother’s secret past, Andrea Oliver searches for clues to save her.

First sentence:

For years, even while she’d loved him, part of her had hated him in that childish way that you hate something you can’t control.

62. Celtic Empire by Clive Cussler and Dirk Cussler (2018):

Blurb: The 25th book in the Dirk Pitt series

First sentence:

Wails of grief drifted over the city like a black aria.

63. Cottage by the Sea by Debbie Macomber (2018):

Blurb: Annie Marlow forms new relationships in the Pacific Northwest as she tries to recover from tragedy.

First sentence:

Keaton had noticed the beautiful teenage girl on the beach earlier in the week.

64. The Fall of Gondolin by J.R. R. Tolkien (2018):

Blurb: Thousands of years before the events of “The Lord of the Rings,” a hero named Tuor visits a secret city. Edited by Christopher Tolkien

Then said Littleheart son of Bronweg: ‘Know then that Tuor was a man who dwelt in very ancient days in that land of the North called Dor-lómin or the Land of Shadows, and of the Eldar the Noldoli know it best.’

65. Vince Flynn: Red War by Kyle Mills (2018):

Blurb: When the Russian prime minister plots to invade the Baltics, only Mitch Rapp can stop him.

The streets were overrun.

66. Warlight by Michael Ondaatje (2018):

Blurb: In Britain after World War II, a pair of teenage siblings are taken under the tutelage of a mysterious man.

First sentence:

In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.

67. Circe by Madeline Miller (2018):

Blurb: Zeus banishes Helios’ daughter to an island, where she must choose between living with gods or mortals.

First sentence:

When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.

68. To the Moon and Back by Karen Kingsbury (2018):

Blurb: A man whose mother died in the Oklahoma City bombing seeks to reconnect with a woman also affected by the tragedy.

First sentence:

The roots of the tree had taken residence in Amy Hogan’s heart, where they wouldn’t let go.

69. Tom Clancy: Oath of Office by Marc Cameron (2018):

Blurb: President Jack Ryan must contain the fallout of a flu epidemic and two hijacked Russian nuclear missiles.

First sentence:

In Mother Russia, secrets did not stay secret for long.

70. Of Blood and Bone by Nora Roberts (2018):

Blurb: While the people of New Hope face threats, Fallon Swift goes on three quests to discover her powers.

First sentence:

They said a virus ended the world.

71. Target: Alex Cross by James Patterson (2018):

Blurb: Alex Cross returns for the 26th book in the series bearing his name.

First sentence:

Temperatures that late January morning plunged to four degrees above zero, and still people came by the hundreds of thousands, packing both sides of the procession route from Capitol Hill to the White House.

72. Long Road to Mercy by David Baldacci (2018):

Blurb: The F.B.I. agent Atlee Pine must choose between protecting her career or the United States’ democracy.

First sentence:

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.

73. The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin (2018):

Blurb: Four adolescents learn the dates of their deaths from a psychic and their lives go on different courses. ]

First Sentence:

Varya is thirteen.

74. Verses for the Dead by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child (2018):

Blurb: Agents Pendergast and Coldmoon track a killer who removes hearts and leaves handwritten letters.

First sentence:

Isabella Guerrero – known to her friends and fellow bridge club members as Iris – made her way demurely through the palms of Bayside Cemetary.

75. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (2018):

Blurb: A newlywed couple’s relationship is tested when the husband is sentenced to 12 years in prison.

First sentence:

There are two kinds of people in the world, those who leave home, and those who don’t.

76. Fire and Blood by George R. R. Martin (2018):

Blurb: The first volume of the twopart history of the Targaryens in Westeros.

First sentence:

The maesters of the Citadel who keep the histories of Westeros have used Aegon’s Conquest as their touchstone for the past three hundred years.

77. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (2018):

Blurb: A woman who survived alone in the marsh becomes a murder suspect.

First sentence:

Marsh is not swamp.

78. Tailspin by Sandra Brown (2018):

Blurb: A pilot navigates treacherous situations when he attempts to deliver a mysterious black box to a doctor in Georgia.

First sentence:

“No. Not doing it.”

79. Something in the Water by Catherine Steadman (2018):

Blurb: A documentary filmmaker and an investment banker must decide whether they should protect a secret.

First sentence:

Have you ever wondered how long it takes to dig a grave?

80. Early Riser by Jasper Fforde (2018):

Blurb: Charlie Worthing investigates an outbreak of viral dreams killing a hibernating human population.

First sentence:

Mrs Tiffen could play the bouzouki.

81. Dark Sentinel by Christine Feehan (2018):

Blurb: The 32nd book in the Carpathian series. Andor Katona tries to convince Lorraine Peters of their immortal bond.

First sentence:

Contemplating allowing himself to die made Andor Katona feel like a coward.

82. The Next Person you Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom (2018):

Blurb: The sequel to “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” follows Annie on her heavenly journey.

First sentence:

This is a story about a woman named Annie, and it begins at the end, with Annie falling from the sky.

83. The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware (2018):

Blurb: A tarot card reader mistakenly receives an inheritance letter and attends the funeral of the deceased.

First sentence:

The magpies are back.

84. Normal People by Sally Rooney (2018):

Blurb: The connection between a high school star athlete and a loner ebbs and flows when they go to Trinity College in Dublin.

First sentence:

Marianne answers the door when Connell rings the bell.

85. Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate (2017):

Blurb: A South Carolina lawyer learns about the questionable practices of a Tennessee orphanage.

First sentence:

My story begins on a sweltering August night, in a place I will never set eyes upon.

86. Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan (2017):

Blurb: The first female diver at the Brooklyn Naval Yard during World War II tries to understand why her father disappeared.

First sentence:

They’d driven all the way to Mr. Style’s house before Anna realized that her father was nervous.

87. Artemis by Andy Weir (2017):

Blurb: A small-time smuggler living in a lunar colony schemes to pay off an old debt by pulling off a challenging heist.

First sentence:

I bounded over the gray, dusty terrain toward the huge dome of Conrad Bubble.

88. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (2017):

Blurb: A 13-year-old boy comes of age in Mississippi while his black mother takes him and his toddler sister to pick up their white father, who is getting released from the state penitentiary.

First sentence:

I like to think i know what death is.

89. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (2017):

Blurb: An artist upends a quiet town outside Cleveland.

First sentence:

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.

90. The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn (2017):

Blurb: A recluse who drinks heavily and takes prescription drugs may have witnessed a crime across from her Harlem townhouse.

First sentence:

Her husband’s almost home.

91. A Column of Fire by Ken Follett (2017):

Blurb: A pair of lovers find themselves on opposite sides of a conflict while Queen Elizabeth fights to maintain her throne.

First sentence:

We hanged him in front of Kingsbridge Cathedral.

92. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (2016):

Blurb: A psychological thriller set in the environs of London.

First sentence:

She’s buried beneath a silver birch tree, down towards the old train tracks, her grave marked with a cairn.

93. The Seventh Plague by James Rollins (2016):

Blurb: The 12th Sigma Force thriller follows a deadly pathogen in Egypt and a Russian assassin in the Arctic.

First sentence:

From the coroner’s nervous manner, Derek Ranking knew something was wrong.

94. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (2016):

Blurb: A slave girl heads toward freedom on the network, envisioned as actual tracks and tunnels.

First sentence:

The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no.

95. The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney (2016):

Blurb: Siblings in a dysfunctional New York family must grapple with a reduced inheritance.

First sentence

As the rest of the guests wandered the deck of the beach club under an early-evening midsummer sky, taking pinched, appraising sips of their cocktails to gauge if the bartenders were using the top-shelf stuff and balancing tiny crab cakes on paper napkins while saying appropriate things about how they’d really lucked out with the weather because the humidity would be back tomorrow, or murmuring inappropriate things about the bride’s snug satin dress, wondering if the spilling cleavage was due to bad tailoring or poor taste (a look as their own daughters might say) or an unexpected weight gain, winking and making tired jokes about exchanging toasters for diapers, Leo Plumb left his cousin’s wedding with one of the waitresses.

96. Prince Lestat and the Realms of Atlantis by Anne Rice (2016):

Blurb: In the 12th Vampire Chronicles novel, Lestat learns about an ancient sea power, a legendary empire and an unworldly force.

First sentence:

They had been talking up there for hours.

97. The Girls by Emma Cline (2016):

Blurb: In the summer of 1969, a California teenager is drawn to a Manson-like cult.

First sentence:

I looked up because of the laughter, and kept looking because of the girls.

98. Moonglow by Michael Chabon (2016):

Blurb: A novel that presents itself as a memoir of an elderly World War II veteran and his wife, a Holocaust survivor, who resemble Chabon’s maternal grandparents.

First sentence:

This is how I heard the story.

99. Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult (2016):

Blurb: A medical crisis entangles a black nurse, a white supremacist father and a white lawyer.

First sentence:

The miracle happened on West 74th Street, in the home where Mama worked.

100. All the Light we Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014):

Blurb: The lives of a blind French girl and a gadget-obsessed German boy before and during World War II.

First sentence:

At dusk they pour from the sky.

What are some of your favourite opening sentences and why? Let us know in the comments below and join Now Novel for free critique or extra help from an experienced writing coach.

By Jordan

Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and his undergraduate in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.

2 replies on “Writing first lines: 100 bestsellers’ lessons”

Few lines are as important as the first ten and the last ten. The first ten makes a promise in tone, timing, and stakes. The last ten deliver on that promise or stiff the reader. But that first sentence is often make or break. Good stuff, I can’t wait to share for #WriterWednesday.

Thank you, Elias. I like ‘the first ten makes a promise in tone, timing and stakes.’ Thank you for reading our blog.

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