A picture is worth a thousand words, but you only need about 20 to write a great first line.
Great photographs capture one single instant, and yet they tell a story, ask a question or make a statement.
If you want to learn how to write a great first line, look at a great photo.
Imagine an image of a firefighter taking a shot on a billiard table with smoking destruction all around him.
Think of a riderless horse with empty boots turned backward in the stirrups.
Google “greatest photos of all time,” click on any list and scroll around. You’ll see profound statements everywhere.
If a photographer can grab attention with just a fraction of a second, you can do it by carefully selecting from an infinite number of words.
Below, I’ll analyze the work of masterful writers who have created great first lines in the past. And then I’ll teach you how to create your own great lines.
Grab Attention by Writing a Great First Line
All eyes moved to the masked man after he fired his gun in the air.
So what happened next?
In this case, the masked man says this:
“I’m a metaphor for your first line. I got your attention, and now I’m sharing some information you need. Do you want to know how to write a great first line?”
Your article will drop into a sea of content. The internet has made every single person a Cell Phone Citizen Kane, and you face stiff competition for attention.
So you must fire your gun in the air with a first line that will grab attention and make people listen to what you have to say.
Your first line must also relate to your subject. Unless you’re a deceptive click-bait artist who deceives people with headlines that don’t deliver on their promises, you need to write something related to your topic.
Sure, you might lure a person to your site with something like this: “Donald Trump shares the best first line he ever wrote.” But unless you actually have that info, you’ll lose all credibility and readers.
SEO: Great First Lines and Search Engines
Search engines like Google will sometimes—but not always—pull first lines into results for searchers to help them figure out if they should click a link. No one knows the exact mechanics, and even if you create a custom meta description, you can’t be certain Google will present it to readers.
That said, most SEO experts insist that you must put your keyword in the first line or at least the first paragraph. That’s good for searchers but usually bad for literature.
“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”
That’s a great first line from “Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone,” but it doesn’t tell Google anything at all. Nor does it say anything to a skimming reader.
To Be or Not to Be Found
To help with SEO, it’s often worth working researched keywords or phrases into your first line. That, of course, gives you fewer options, especially if you’re targeting long-tail keywords that are ungainly and awkward to work with.
Example: “Shelly was so angry with her current service provider that she immediately decided to determine the best long distance provider for small businesses in the greater Toronto area.”
That’s far from elegant. Might it help with SEO? Maybe. But you’ll have to decide whether forced placement of search-engine keywords is worth an awkward intro line.
My position: It’s not worth it. Google is smart, and while its algorithms are secret, we do know it prioritizes great content that repeatedly satisfies searchers. So more important than driving traffic is delivering great content. If you can work a keyword into your first line in a clever way, do it. But don’t force things.
A simple plan: If you’re writing for a mailing list or blog that receives regular traffic from an established audience, you can afford to take more liberties with first lines. Same deal if you have a great social-media presence that gets people to your website or engages readers right on the platform.
If you’re writing simply for SEO and relying on search engines to feed you traffic, you might need to lean more to SEO and throw out a lot of creativity.
In the sections below, we’ll teach you how to write great first lines, and we’ll let you decide whether you want to try to hook readers with creativity or front-load direct, concise information that will please search engines.
Or perhaps you’re clever enough to do both!
Why Great First Lines Are Great First Lines
That’s so Weird—and Typical
“Sweden’s Ice Hotel has been ordered by the National Housing Board to install fire alarms, despite being made completely out of frozen water.” —Oliver Gee, The Local
This stellar line points out a situation so nonsensical that you have to read on to find out more. After about 25 words, you know a story will follow, and it will likely leave you incredulous. As a bonus, we all know bureaucracy is ridiculous, and the author has assured you’ll get yet another example of stupid rules made by politicians.
As an SEO bonus, this article gives Google all the information it needs to determine exactly what the article is about. Call it a modern great first line: It’s packed with SEO info but it’s cleverly crafted to make you want to read more.
Get Ready for Something
“It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking 13.” —George Orwell, 1984
This famous first line immediately signals that the world has changed dramatically. By messing with something so common as timekeeping, Orwell forces the reader to engage to find out why clocks are striking 13—and what else has changed.
Sadly for George, the world has changed. His line won’t do anything for Google—but that doesn’t mean it isn’t great.
“All this happened, more or less.” —Kurt Vonnegut, “Slaughterhouse Five”
Here, Vonnegut is being very sly and hinting that things might not be quite what they seem. He’s using a touch of humor, and the reader can’t wait to see what liberties he’s going to take in his tale.
Tell Me More
“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” —C.S. Lewis, “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader”
This one calls attention to an awkward name and suggests its owner almost earned it through behavior. So what did Eustace do? We must know.
The Top of the Roller Coaster
“We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold.” —Hunter S. Thompson, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”
This famous first line provides geographic info as well as a signal that the entire book is going to be a wild ride. You know you’re in for insanity 18 words into the book.
Struggle and Conflict
“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream, and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” —Ernest Hemingway, “The Old Man and the Sea”
Stories need heroes, villains, defeats and losses. This one from Hemingway gives us a ton of information and alerts us to a major difficulty the man will have to address.
Were Hemingway blogging and concerned with SEO—keywords: “how to catch a marlin”—he might have written this: “Expert 84-year-old Gulf Stream trophy fisher Santiago shares five unbelievably simple secrets for how to catch a marlin—guaranteed.”
That’s less literary, but it might get more clicks on Facebook—if that’s a concern.
How to Write a Great First Line
Below are 10 techniques you can try. In each section, I’ll give an example from a certain industry to show how a business might employ the technique on a blog, on social media or perhaps even in marketing.
Remember, these techniques can be combined with SEO best practices—but we aren’t interested in keyword stuffing and search engines here. We’re interested in engaging readers.
Buy this bottle of water.
“Buy this bottle of water because it’s the last one on Earth.”
Which line is more powerful?
Scarcity works in marketing because it drives people to act. Same principle in writing. Tension makes people read on to resolve the tension.
Fitness industry example:
“John literally threw out all his ‘fat pants’ yesterday in a fit of rage.”
That one has a lot going on. You want to know why John threw his pants out, why he called them “fat pants” in the first place. Why yesterday? You might even seize on the word “fat,” which is a quote from John but a politically charged term nonetheless.
Tension motivates people to resolve it, and you can use it to motivate people to keep reading.
How, Why and What: All the Cool Kids Are Asking
As of this writing in November 2019, headlines with these three words are very popular.
In 1945, you would have seen something like this: “World War 2 Finally Over.”
Had that battle ended today, you’d see something like this: “The Number 1 Reason Why You Don’t Have to Kill People Anymore—and What to Do With Your Spare Time.”
Lines like this are designed to pique curiosity and motivate people to click. And you can use the same principle in the first line of a business blog.
Restaurant example (two for one): “How many times do we need to tell you why we don’t allow people to use cutlery on all-you-can-eat rib night?”
Airline example: “We won’t tell you where to travel, but we can tell you what will happen if you choose another airline.”
How, why and what are big deals right now, and you can use them in a first line to make people read on for the answers.
Tell Me a Story
People have loved stories since the first campfire thousands of years ago.
And now the Storybrand concept is motivating business owners to create clear stories in which their clients are the heroes.
All that’s well and good, but Storybrand can only tell you that you need to create a story and stay on topic. It’s not going to suddenly make you a great storyteller for the same reason that only one of 10 people around the campfire can tell a story anyone wants to hear.
Storytelling is an art that can be boiled down into this: Something cool happened—but I’m not going to tell you everything right away.
Here’s a first line that tells the entire story right away: “Kim started taking karate lessons so she’d be able to protect herself.”
Here’s the first line of a story: “Kim’s sister staggered into the room with blood streaming from her nose.”
You can use your first line to tell people there’s more to come—a lot more. And then you’d do well to tell your tale by carefully working through key details that keep readers moving from beginning to middle to end.
Example from the GPS/map app industry: “Kevin had to do a 30-minute drive in 10 minutes or he’d miss the birth of his child.”
That first line sets up an opportunity to talk about secret shortcuts, avoided traffic jams, high speeds and rock-star parking before you get to the payoff.
Before and after pictures crush on social media because they show change.
Change doesn’t happen without a cause, and the more dramatic the change, the more people want to know the cause.
You can use a first line that focuses on change to get people to hear your explanation.
Example from the clothing industry: “He always wore shorts until the day he needed pants more than anything else in the world.”
We all know a guy who always wears shorts no matter how cold it is. So why did Shorts Guy suddenly change his behavior?
You want to know, don’t you? Your readers will want to know why changes happened, too.
Tigers in the Bathroom
Things that are out of place play on our sense of patterns and order.
Remember the movie “The Hangover”? When the guys wake up to find a tiger—owned by Mike Tyson—in their hotel-room bathroom, viewers are drawn in by the dramatic contrast.
“That thing shouldn’t be there. Those things don’t go together. How is this possible?”
Breaks in patterns draw attention—this technique is actually used quite a bit in clever marketing. Think of lizards and insurance, for example.
Example from the media industry: “The bottom of a pool is no place for a mobile phone—until two scuba instructors want you to film their underwater wedding.”
If you can point out things that are way out of place, you’ve likely got a great first line that will pull in your readers.
The Shocking Statement
If your statement has enough weight, and if you’re willing to be a little brash or abrasive, you can create a blunt first line that goads, challenges or even irritates a reader.
Example from the plumbing industry: “You’re standing in 2 feet of water because you thought the building code wasn’t important.”
You probably don’t want to offend your readers. But conflict or challenge will often make people dig into a story. For lots of examples, check out opinion pieces in local media.
Columnists are paid to take a stand on an issue, and they’ll often come at readers with fiery arguments. Readers who agree love to read the columns. And so do readers who don’t agree.
All the Feelz
Jerking on a reader’s emotions always works, just the way good salespeople create emotional investment before closing a deal.
“Wouldn’t you agree that you’d have more time to spend with your kids if you didn’t have to mow your giant lawn for 5 hours every week?”
A great first line that connects with a reader’s emotions will always pull him or her into the story.
Financial industry example: “Jack couldn’t bear to see his 80-year-old father standing in the snow at the bus stop for even one more day.”
Everyone cares about parents and can imagine why Jack feels badly. When a first line helps people make an emotional connection, you’ve got yourself a reader.
Compare, Contrast and Analyze
People love rankings, lists, comparisons and expert commentary.
It’s the reason best-of’s, top 10s and reviews are everywhere.
That should give you a host of ideas for great first lines. Here are several examples:
Politics: “It was a bad day to make the worst political move of all time.”
Beauty industry: “A self-described crybaby watched the saddest movies ever made and now knows which mascara won’t ever run.”
Cleaning industry: “If you’re using these three detergents, you’re probably eating dirt.”
You’re likely an expert on the topic you’re writing about, so showcase your knowledge. Wouldn’t you want to know if the world’s best photographer prefers Nikon, Canon or Sony cameras?
Use your first line to set up a comparison, hint at the conclusions of your analysis or introduce a list.
Engaging your reader directly can have great results. It’s almost like starting a conversation in a coffee shop.
Almost no one ignores a direct question in person, and few can resist them in print.
Example from footwear industry: “Do high heels make you want to take off your shoe and stab the designer with it?”
Related to All the Feelz above, asking questions can also help you develop commonalities with your audience, which will make people more inclined to read on.
Example from furniture industry: “Don’t you think every chair should recline?”
Flip the Script
Sometimes you’ll find success by giving away the ending in the first line.
If the line leaves readers wondering about the back story, they’ll move through your narrative even if they know the ending. This technique is a lot like a movie that starts with a flashback and then spends 90 minutes bringing the scene into focus.
Example from the pet industry: “And that was the last time the dog was allowed to sleep outside the kennel at night.”
That’s the last line, but when used as a first line, it hints at some some disaster that needs to be explained.
If you have an amazing finisher, consider using it up front, too.
How to Write a Great First Line Bonus: Engagement Tips!
Buzzsomo has a fascinating list of headline words and phrases the either drive engagement or kill it.
We’ll play around with that list to show how we can combine some of the techniques with trending words that drive readers.
Top headline phrase: “Will make you.”
First line: “The tiger in the bathroom will make you wonder why you drank the entire bottle of tequila.”
Top headline phrase: “This is why.”
First line: “This is why you’re standing in 2 feet of sewage and need a plumber badly.”
Top headline phrase: “Are freaking out.”
First line: “Patrons are freaking out over fire alarms in the Swedish Ice Hotel.”
Top headline phrase: “Tears of joy.”
First line: “John cried tears of joy as he flung his ‘fat pants’ out the window.”
Top headline phrase: “Is what happens.”
First line: “This is what happens when an unlucky octogenarian hooks a giant marlin alone in the Gulf Stream.”
The Power of a Great First Line
Great lines are more critical now than ever. With so much content around, you’re in a fight for attention.
But you have a lot of weapons. If you write a great first line, it will draw people into your article. But you can also use that line in a headline, an infographic/meme, in a social media post or even in a boosted post or ad. You can even make it a hook for a podcast or YouTube video. Or put it on a T-shirt.
A great first line is no longer stuck sandwiched among stacks of books in your basement. Now, you can use it just about anywhere to have an effect.
Bhad Bhabie/Danielle Bregoli might not be Ernest Hemingway, but she accidentally used a single oddly catchy line that went viral—“cash me outside”—to become a celebrity.
How bout dah?
Never underestimate the power of a single line.
Mike Warkentin is the co-founder of Two-Brain Media. He edits all kinds of great first lines on the Two-Brain Business website.