“I’ve never met you, but I’m gonna read your mind.”
That’s the opening line to The Scribe Method. It does what great opening sentences should: it immediately captures the reader’s attention. It makes them want to read more.
The purpose of a good opening line is to engage the reader and get them to start reading the book. That’s it.
It’s a fairly simple idea, and it works very well—but there are still a lot of misconceptions about book openings.
Many first-time Authors think they have to shock the reader to make them take note.
That’s not true. There are many ways to hook a reader that don’t require shocking them.
I also see Authors who think the purpose of the first paragraph is to explain what they’ll talk about in the book.
Not only is that wrong, it’s boring.
Readers can sense bullshit a mile away, so don’t try to beat them over the head with shock. Don’t give them a tedious summary. Don’t tell your life story. Don’t go into too much detail.
Use your first sentence to connect to the reader and make them want to keep reading.
This guide will help you write a great opening line so you can establish that authenticity and connection quickly.
How to Write a Great Opening Sentence
Everyone knows some of the great opening lines from fiction novels:
- “Call me Ishmael.” – Herman Melville, Moby Dick
- “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
- “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” – Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude
- “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
The common thread between these opening lines is that they create a vivid first impression. They make the reader want to know more.
They’re punchy, intriguing, and unexpected.
The first words of a nonfiction book work the same way. You want to create an emotional connection with the reader so they can’t put the book down.
In some ways, nonfiction Authors even have an advantage. They’re writing about themselves and their knowledge while having a conversation with the reader.
They can establish the connection even more immediately because they don’t have to set a fictional scene. They can jump right in and use the first person “I.”
Let’s go back to The Scribe Method‘s opening paragraph:
I’ve never met you, but I’m gonna read your mind. Not literally, of course. I’m going to make an educated guess about why you want to write a book.
When you read that, at a minimum, you’re going to think, “All right, dude, let’s see if you really know why I want to write a book.” And you’re going to keep reading.
At best, you’re going to think, “Wow. He’s inside my head right now.” And you’re going to keep reading.
In both cases, I’ve managed to create an emotional connection with the reader. Even if that emotion is skepticism, it’s enough to hook someone.
So where do you start when you’re writing your book? How do you form that connection?
The best hooks usually start in the middle of the highest intensity.
In other words, lead with the most emotional part of the story.
If you’re starting your book with a story about how you got chased by the police, don’t begin with what you had for breakfast that day. Start with the chase.
A good hook might also be a question or a claim—anything that will elicit an emotional response from a reader.
Think about it this way: a good opening sentence is the thing you don’t think you can say, but you still want to say.
Like, “This book will change your life.”
Or, “I’ve come up with the most brilliant way anyone’s ever found for handling this problem.”
Your opening sentence isn’t the time for modesty (as long as you can back it up!).
That doesn’t mean you have to be cocky. You just have to be honest and engaging.
When you’re trying to come up with a great opening line, ask yourself these 3 things:
- What will the audience care about, be interested in, or be surprised by?
- What is the most interesting story or inflammatory statement in your book?
- What do you have to say that breaks the rules?
The best opening lines are gut punches.
They summarize the book, at least in an oblique way. But they’re not dry facts. They’re genuine, behind-the-scenes glimpses into a human life. They establish who you are and what you’re about, right from the beginning.
Human beings respond to genuine connection. That means being vulnerable. You have to break down any barriers that you might usually keep around you.
That’s one of the hardest things to do as an Author, but it makes for a great book.
Reading about perfection is boring, especially because we all know there’s no such thing.
In the next section, I’ll go through examples of great first sentences and explain why they work.
Every one of these strategies helps create an instant, authentic connection with readers. You just have to pick the one that makes the most sense for your book.
Examples of Great First Sentences (And How They Did It)
1. Revealing Personal Information
“School was hard for me, for lots of reasons.” – Tiffany Haddish, The Last Black Unicorn
When most people think about comedian Tiffany Haddish, they think of a glamorous celebrity.
They don’t think about a kid who had trouble in school because she had an unstable home life, reeked of onions, and struggled with bullying.
From the first line of her book, Tiffany reveals that you’re going to learn things about her that you don’t know—personal things.
I mean, really personal.
The book’s opening story concludes with her trying to cut a wart off her face because she was teased so much about it (that’s where the “unicorn” nickname came from).
That level of personal connection immediately invites the reader in. It promises that the Author is going to be honest and vulnerable, no holds barred.
This isn’t going to be some picture-perfect memoir. It’s going to be real, and it’s going to teach you something.
And that’s what forms a connection.
2. Mirroring the Reader’s Pain
“How can I become more confident?” is by far the most common question we get asked, whether it’s about approaching women, dating them, or just having sex. – Tucker Max and Geoffrey Miller, PhD, What Women Want
Geoffrey and I chose this opening sentence because it let readers know right away that we know their pain.
Not only that, we knew how to fix it.
If a reader picked up the book and didn’t connect to that opening line, they probably weren’t our target audience.
But if someone picked it up and said, “This is exactly what I want to know!” we already had them hooked.
They would trust us immediately because we proved in the first sentence that we understood them.
In this sentence, Geoffrey and I are positioned as the experts. People are coming to us for help.
But you can also mirror your reader’s pain more directly. Check out this example from Jennifer Luzzato’s book, Inheriting Chaos with Compassion:
“In 2013, my husband was diagnosed with leukemia.”
That’s a gut punch for anyone. But it’s an even bigger one for Jennifer’s target audience: people who unexpectedly lose a loved one and are left dealing with financial chaos.
Jennifer isn’t just giving the reader advice.
She’s showing that she’s been through the pain. She understands it. And she’s the right person to help the reader solve it.
3. Asking the Reader a Question
“Let’s start with a question: why do certain groups perform better than other groups?” – Daniel Coyle, The Culture Code
Readers come to nonfiction books because they want help solving a problem.
If you picked up a book about team-building, culture, and leadership, you likely want answers to some questions.
Daniel Coyle’s book shows the reader, right off the bat, that he’s going to give you answers.
His question also isn’t a boring, how-do-organizations-work type of question.
It’s compelling enough to make you keep reading, at least for a few more sentences. And then ideally, a few sentences, pages, and chapters after that.
Starting with a question is often a variation on tactic number 2.
If the reader picked up your book hoping to solve a certain problem or learn how to do something, asking them that question can immediately show them that you understand their pain.
It can set the stage for the whole book.
You can also pique the reader’s interest by asking them a question they’ve never thought about.
“How are entrepreneurs like superheroes?”
It’s a unique question that hooks a reader.
But the answer still cuts straight to the heart of his book: “Both entrepreneurs and superheroes want to use their skills to serve people and make the world a better place.”
The unexpected framing gives readers a fresh perspective on a topic they’ve probably already thought a lot about.
4. Shock the Reader
“We shot dogs. Not by accident. We did it on purpose, and we called it Operation Scooby. I’m a dog person, so I thought a lot about that.” – Phil Klay, Redeployment
I said in the intro to this post that you don’t have to shock the reader to get their attention.
I never said you couldn’t.
If you’re going to do it, though, you have to do it well.
This is the best opening to a book I’ve ever read. I’m actually a dog person, so this shocked the hell out of me. It was gripping.
As you read, the sentence starts making more sense, but it stays just as shocking. And you can’t help but finish the page and the chapter to understand why. But my God, what a way to hook a reader (in case you are wondering, the dogs were licking up blood from dead bodies and giving away the soldiers’ positions to insurgents. They had to kill the dogs or risk being discovered).
I read this opening sentence as part of an excerpt from the book on Business Insider.
I plowed through the excerpt, bought the book on Kindle, canceled two meetings, and read the whole book.
5. Intrigue the Reader
“It was the morning of June 9, in Frisco, Texas, when I made the most shocking realization of my professional life.” – Will Leach, Marketing to Mindstates
If you don’t read that and immediately want to know what the realization was, you’re a force to be reckoned with.
People love reading about drama, screw-ups, and revelations. By leading with one, Will immediately intrigues his readers.
They’ll want to keep reading so they can solve the mystery. What was the big deal?
I’m not going to tell you and spoil the fun. You’ll have to check out Will’s book to find out.
There are other ways to be intriguing, too. For example, see the opening line to Lorenzo Gomez’ Cilantro Diaries:
“If you ever live in San Antonio and then move away, inevitably, you’ll tell people that you miss one thing about the city. It’s not the Alamo, the Riverwalk, or even the mighty San Antonio Spurs.”
Again, the Author is setting up a mystery.
He wants the reader to rack his brain and say, “Well, if it’s not the famous stuff, what is it?”
And then, when Lorenzo gets to the unexpected answer—the H-E-B grocery store—they’re even more intrigued.
Why would a grocery store make someone’s top-ten list, much less be the thing they’d miss most?
That kind of unexpected storytelling is perfect for keeping readers engaged.
The more intrigue you can create, the more they’ll keep turning the pages.
6. Lead with a Bold Claim
“I’ve found something quite simple that could change the world. To be perfectly clear, the idea is quite simple, the research behind it was incredibly complex, and the ramifications are profound. Here’s what I mean.” – David Allison, We Are All the Same Age Now
There are thousands of books about marketing. So, how does an Author cut through the noise?
If you’re David Allison, you cut right to the chase and lead with a bold claim.
You tell people you’re going to change the world. And then you tell them you have the data to back it up.
If your reader is sympathetic, they’re going to jump on board. If they’re skeptical, they’re still going to want to see if David’s claim holds up.
Here’s the thing, though: only start bold if you can back it up.
Don’t tell someone you’re going to transform their whole life and only offer a minor life hack. They’ll feel cheated.
But if you’re really changing the way that people think about something, do something, or feel about something, then lead with it.
Start big. And then prove it.
7. Be Empathetic and Honest
“If you let it, this book will change your life. But fair warning: you might not enjoy the process to get there. I know I didn’t. More than once I wanted to quit. But I didn’t, and I’m eternally grateful I kept going.” – Philip McKernan, One Last Talk
One Last Talk is one of the best books we’ve ever done at Scribe. And it shows right from the first sentence.
Philip starts with a bold claim: “If you let it, this book will change your life.”
But then he gives a caveat: it’s not going to be fun.
That’s the moment when he forms an immediate connection with the reader.
Many Authors will tell their readers, “This book will change your life. It’s going to be incredible! Just follow these steps and be on your way!”
Not many Authors will lead with, “It’s going to be worth it, but it’s going to be miserable.”
By being this upfront about the emotional work the book involves, Philip immediately proves to his readers that he’s honest and empathetic.
He understands what they’re going to go through. And he can see them through it, even if it sucks.
One piece of advice we give at Scribe is to talk to your reader like you’re talking to a friend.
Philip does that. And it shows the reader they’re dealing with someone authentic.
8. Invite the Reader In
“Dear Reader: Thanks so much for purchasing Never Lose a Customer Again! Or picking it up at the bookstore and reading this first chapter—trust me, you should save time and go buy this now as I offer a 100 percent refund guarantee at the end of this letter, so no need to worry!” – Joey Coleman, Never Lose a Customer Again
Joey starts the book by speaking directly to the reader.
He immediately creates a connection and invites the reader in. This makes the book feel more like a conversation between two people than something written by a nameless, faceless Author.
The reason this tactic works so well is because Joey’s whole book is about never losing a customer.
He immediately puts the book’s principles into action.
From the first sentence, Joey’s demonstrating exactly what the reader is there to learn.