Posted On May 10, 2017 by Print This Post

First Line = First Impression by Donna MacMeans

I first met Donna MacMeans at Lori Foster’s Reader Author Get Together in Cincinnati. I remember it particularly because everyone was talking about a new release called THE EDUCATION OF MRS. BRIMLEY. I was new to historicals, but I picked up that book on the strength of all the recommendations. It was much later I realized the Donna MacMeans I’d met was also the author of that book. I miss hanging out with Donna at RAGT, but I’m glad I can still visit with her here at RU. Scroll down to read about Donna’s giveaway!


The first paragraph of a novel is a contract to the reader.  It says “this is what you can expect from me.  A story set in a particular genre with elements of (insert author’s strength) humor, beautiful prose, suspense, etc.”  While not every writer, or every book, is able to pack such an inclusive promise in so very few words, those that do are memorable to the reader, and often find a place on the “keeper shelf.”


When I first began writing, I thought I only needed to have a catchy first line, or an intriguing line of dialogue.  I’ve since learned that an exceptional first line invokes an emotional response from the reader that, hopefully, is indicative of the remaining novel as well.


Often the first lines suggest change is imminent and frequently reference that very word. This is not surprisingly given that change is a key component of any plot, but incorporating the word or the imminent factor in the first line suggests the reader doesn’t have to wait very long for the story to be underway.


To gain some insight as to what makes a first line memorable to readers,  I asked them for their favorite first lines in a well-attended blog. I added these to my own list of favorite lines that I update as I come across a particularly intriguing one. When I sort the list by subgenre, I found some interesting commonalities that you might consider in your writing.


Please note that I consider the first lines of Prologues as well as the first lines of the first chapter as they both offer a first impression to a reader.


Contemporary Romance

All of the first lines in this group pack an emotional punch.  It can be the pure joy of existence, the pride of obtaining a goal, or the anticipation of marriage or even the more private celebration thereafter. Note the seamless way, some of the examples below incorporate the setting into the first couple of lines. The reader instantly knows the placement of the story and perhaps the time of year while being otherwise engaged in the introduction of character.


“Planning on jumping? I wouldn’t. Blood’s hell to get out of silk.”  Jennifer Crusie, MANHUNTING


“It wasn’t every day a guy saw a headless beaver marching down the side of a road, not even in Dean Robillards’s larger-than-life world.”

Susan Elizabeth Phillips, NATURAL BORN CHARMER


“Rosalie Ronaldi made a successful escape from the insane asylum. Okay, it wasn’t a real insane asylum; it was her parent’s Bay Ridge home. But most days, it could pass for the Sicilian version of Bellevue. She pulled on her coat as the storm door snicked closed behind her, took a deep breath of cold early January air, and ran for the solace of her car.”

Robin Kaye, ROMEO, ROMEO


“Britt burst out her front door, stag-leaped her sagging front step, scattered three deer and that blue jay whose hobby was harassing her cat, and finished yanking her blue camisole down over her head before she hit the ground.”



“He reminded her of every delicious, forbidden, dirty action that could be committed under a tangle of sheets.”




Historical Romance

While timelines are used at times in all of the subgenres, it’s fairly imperative to use one when introducing an historical romance.  With the simple review of a date, the reader has an idea of the clothing, the social mores, or events in history that might impact the story. Even with the timeline, the first line purposely uses language that cues the reader as to the time period.  It helps set the stage.

“She entered the realm of lost souls in a single horse gig with her footman and maid. Leaving the safety of the well-traveled Strand, she crossed into the shadowy labyrinth.”



Richmond, Surrey

Late April 1824


“Lucinda Seton needed an impressive suitor and she needed one now.

A prince would be her first choice, but she’d settle for a duke or even a marquess, preferably one who was filthy rich.”



London, 1817

“Dangling a man upside down by the ankles outside a London ballroom was not how Maxwell Brooke had anticipated spending his first Thursday night as the Duke of Lyle.”



London, August 1819

“Miriam Ellery, Dowager Duchess of Ashland, had her ankles chained to her bed.”





Paranormal Romance

The first line in these novels tell the reader immediately that they aren’t in Kansas any longer.  The reader knows immediately that the common rules of life on our world no longer apply.


“Every night, death came slowly, painfully, and every morning Maddox awoke in bed, knowing he’d have to die again later.”



“My name is Kate Connor, and I used to be a Demon Hunter.”

Julie Kenner, CARPE DEMON


“Thunder Moon comin’ tonight.  Yer life is fixin’ to change.”



“An angel, a demon, and a vampire walked into a bar.  No seriously, they did.  And all hell broke loose.”




Romantic Suspense

I was surprised to see the frequent reference to death or proximity of death in the first line, even when that death was not of a human nature. It was a reminder that life is dangerous in the best of times and is likely to become more so as the story unfolds.


“Death was not taking a holiday.  New York may have been decked out in its glitter and glamour, madly festooned in December of 2059, but Santa Claus was dead. And a couple of his elves weren’t looking so good.”



“My teacher always told me that in order to save a patient you’d have to kill him first.  Not the most child-friendly way of explaining his theory of book restoration to his eight-year-old apprentice, but it worked.  I grew up determined to save them all.”




Three Months Later

Nashville, Tennessee


“Bodies, everywhere bodies, a field of graves, limbs and torsos and heads, all left above ground.  The feeling of dirt in her mouth, grimy and thick; the whispers from the dead, long arms reaching for her as she passed through the carnage.  Ghostly voices, soft and sibilant. “Help us. Why won’t you help us?”




“Nothing woke up a man as quickly in the morning as a scorpion in his pants. The world—which at the moment for Light Walker consisted of the arachnid’s alarming proximity to his most sensitive parts—snapped into focus real fast.”

Dana Marton, FLASH FIRE





These are often very sensual openers.  Beyond sex, the openers often portray power or a control exchange. Yet, notice that each of the examples below suggests consensual behavior in the very first paragraph. You know immediately that we’re talking erotic.  Due to the PG-13 nature of this discussion, I couldn’t provide as many examples for this category as I’d like. But the openings are definitely hot.


“Look, I’ve come straight from work, and I’ve had a really long day, and I simply haven’t had time to slip into a spiky collar or a mesh shirt or whatever to get into your haven of safe, sane, and consensual depravity.”

Alexis Hall, FOR REAL





“I’m going to wrap my fingers in your hair and slide my other hand up your thigh. You have to be quiet for me. We can’t let anyone know.”




I encourage you to create your own list of favorite opening lines.  I refer to mine with every book I write, after the draft is finished and I’m doing my final edit.


The Question

So tell me – which opener above impressed you the most and why.  Or, tell me your favorite opening line and I’ll add it to my list.


I’ll give a digital copy of CHARMING THE PROFESSOR to someone leaving a comment.

The Charm Gates have stood at The Court of Two Sisters for more than a century with no one guessing the secret they hold. A jealous vindictive Spanish queen and a blackmailed alchemist have encased French “charm teacher” Madeline Charlebois’s essence inside the gates, at least until a grieving professor touches them during a storm and Madeline tumbles out, not in her own 19th century Spain, but in 21st century New Orleans.

Quantum physics Professor Grant Stewart has mourned his wife’s death for the last three years.  But he must move on for his young daughter’s sake, the child who delights in terrorizing babysitters.  Grant needs adequate childcare to pursue tenure at Tulane.  What he doesn’t need is a French beauty believing nonsense like time-travel and voodoo, and whose very being is melting his heart.



(I’m hoping to release the novella, Blame the Moonlight, in August.  It’s the contemporary sequel to Bound by Moonlight, my invisible heroine novel.)

Maddie may be without resources but she’s good at making new friends, even if they are on the quirky side. She believes Professor Stewart can return her home, but first she must earn his trust to win his cooperation. Babysitting his daughter gives her both proximity, and love for the child. Will Grant be the key to returning to her time? Or will she, in turn, unlock his frozen heart? All they need is time and maybe a little voodoo…

Chelsea Davenport turns invisible in moonlight.  She can’t help it, it just happens. Recent sightings of her while fading to a ghost have chased her from Hollywood to Haven Harbor on the opposite coast, but a full moon and a chance encounter with an old boyfriend, now newspaper reporter, prove to be a problem.

Brandon Parker needs a big story to break him into the big leagues. His recent discovery of a woman who disappears in moonlight could be his ticket out of small town hell, but reawakened attraction for his never-forgotten girlfriend has him tied up in knots.

Will Chelsea be front-page news, or are the witches of Haven Harbor just stirring the pot?


Originally published by Penguin publishing as The Trouble with Moonlight, this book won the 2008 Romantic Times Critics Choice Award for Historical Love and Laughter. It’s been renamed Bound By Moonlight and self-published by the author.

A woman of extraordinary talents…
Lusinda Havershaw turns invisible in moonlight–just her, not her clothes. She can’t help it or prevent the process; it just happens. The descendent of a rare race called the Nividimi, her ancestors have been burned as witches, persecuted and tormented as the devil’s children. She must be careful to avoid detection. However, as her family has no other means of support, Lusinda reluctantly sheds her corset and petticoats during the full moon to prowl the gas-lit streets of London, stark naked, as a thief for hire.

A man with a dangerous mission…
The only tools British spy and master safecracker James Locke needs are his hands and his brains. But when a hand tremor threatens his mission to secure a stolen list of agents for the Crown, the accidental discovery of a lady thief with an extraordinary secret may just be his salvation. However, as James and Lusinda discover, there’s more than one kind of trouble to be found in the moonlight. The kind that begins with blackmail and ends with a kiss…



The winner of the prestigious Golden Heart from Romance Writers of America in 2006, Donna MacMeans has since written sensuous Historical Romance for Berkley (an imprint of Penguin Random), romantic suspense for a small press, and indie published fun paranormals just for her.  She has won the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award for Historical Love & Laughter, and has been a finalist for several times and in several categories.  She has won or finaled in many regional contests as well. Her books consistently receive high praise and glowing reviews, and have been published around the world.


A licensed CPA, Donna currently serves as the Treasurer for Romance Writers of America, and maintains a small tax practice in Columbus, Ohio.  She received the 2013 RWA Service Award and the 2014 RWA Pro Mentor award for her work with unpublished writers.  She has taught workshops for the Nora Roberts Institute, the Writer’s Boot camp for RT, The Thurber House, the Antioch Genre Fiction day, several libraries, several RWA conventions and numerous RWA chapters.  If you’re in Orlando this July, be sure to stop her and say hi. J


She lives with her husband of forty+ years, along with a demanding cat who likes to dive bomb her from the bed headboard at five o’clock in the morning. Please contact her at

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36 Responses to “First Line = First Impression by Donna MacMeans”

  1. I LOVE this post, Donna! Luckily, I’ve read quite a few of these books. I had to go and order some of the books you mentioned here that I hadn’t already read. Those first lines are dangerously good!

    I want to go through my books and start listing some favorite first lines (two of my favorites are already listed here), but I’m afraid once I get started I’ll be up all night. I’ll tackle this challenge in the morning.

    Thanks for such a fun – and helpful! – post!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | May 10, 2017, 12:45 am
    • Hi Becke –

      Yes! Go through your keepers. You’ll be amazed with what you find. One doesn’t have to have a great line to be published, but it definately helps! 🙂

      Thanks for having me on the blog.

      Take care!

      Posted by Donna MacMeans | May 10, 2017, 1:57 pm
  2. I enjoyed your explanation of a good first line. I’ve never thought to extend it to the first paragraph but I can see how that would draw your reader in more fully. I’ve had fun crafting my opening lines/paragraph for my erotic romance, just enough sizzle to let the reader know what they’re getting without overwhelming them.

    Posted by Ann Shannon | May 10, 2017, 8:51 am
    • Ann –

      I have to admit, some of the first lines I read had some pretty graphic language. I guess that’s one way of informing the reader that this is what they’re going to get. 🙂 But I liked these as you get the image pretty quickly and have a good idea what’s in store.

      Posted by Donna MacMeans | May 10, 2017, 2:00 pm
  3. Thanks for mentioning Bayou Shadow Hunter!

    Posted by Debbie Herbert | May 10, 2017, 9:31 am
    • Hi Debbie!

      You’re welcome! And congratulations on being a RITA finalist this year. I liked your line primarily because it mentioned change – Plus I liked the dialect (g) (Probably because I did a swamp tour recently). See you at Disneyworld in July!

      Posted by Donna MacMeans | May 10, 2017, 2:03 pm
  4. I’ve been reading a lot of first paragraphs (paragraphs – loosely speaking) this morning and I found a couple that clicked for me as a reader. This opening set up left me intrigued but with questions I wanted answered. It got me hooked on a whole series by an author who, prior to this, I hadn’t read:


    Dylan Hart flipped his cell phone shut and rubbed his hands over his forehead, trying not to stare at the girl on the other side of the office. She was out to slay him, his nemesis, the bane of his existence – Skeeter Bang, five feet eight inches of blond bombshell leaning over a computer.


    She knocked a cigarette out of the pack of Mexican Faros on the desk and struck a match off her belt.

    “Put that out,” he ordered. She knew there was no smoking in the office.

    “Make me,” she said, then stuck the Faro between her lips and inhaled, holding the match to the end of the cigarette. A billow of smoke came out of her mouth when she inhaled.

    Make me?

    The Mission: CRAZY LOVE by Tara Janzen

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | May 10, 2017, 9:33 am
    • Interesting way to start. I would have probably started with “Pink sweater. Short skirt. Long legs.” Which really gives the opening a different feel. I never would have thought of just using single words. Interesting.

      What did you like about the opener?

      Posted by Donna MacMeans | May 10, 2017, 2:08 pm
  5. Here’s a longish paragraph that starts one of my favorite books:

    “Carmel Lacy is the silliest woman I know, which is saying a good deal. The only reason that I was having tea with her in Harrods on that wet Thursday afternoon was that when she rang me up she’d been so insistent that it had been impossible to get out of; and besides, I was so depressed anyway that even tea with Carmel Lacy was preferable to sitting alone at home in a room that seemed to be echoing with that last quarrel with Lewis. That I had been entirely in the right, and that Lewis had been insufferably, immovably, furiously in the wrong was no particular satisfaction, since he was now in Stockholm, and I was still here in London, when by rights we should have been lying on a beach together in the Italian sunshine, enjoying the first summer holiday we’d been able to plan together since our honeymoon two years ago.”

    AIRS ABOVE THE GROUND by Mary Stewart

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | May 10, 2017, 9:41 am
    • What about this opening grabbed you? You have to know so you can emulate the feeling.

      I have some great longish openers on my list but I was too lazy to type them in (grin). I loved the “insufferably, immovably, furiously in the wrong.” That tells you something about the character. It also slipped in the location nice and easy.

      Good choice, Becke!

      Posted by Donna MacMeans | May 10, 2017, 2:12 pm
      • Mary Stewart is one of my favorite authors. Browsing through her books, I realized first lines aren’t really her strength but I still felt sucked into each story as I skimmed the opening pages. I reread her books every few years and even knowing what happens next, I just love her way with words.

        Posted by Becke Martin Davis | May 10, 2017, 2:20 pm
  6. I liked Mind Sweeper. Something about the combo of comedy and paranormal (with implied power) that appeals to me.

    All of these excerpts were great, though. I loved this post.

    Posted by Staci Troilo | May 10, 2017, 9:43 am
  7. I’m in the old-skool group of first lines and paragraphs. I don’t need to be immersed in the story from the get-go. I like to ease into something.

    I like this one the best because it does tell me her goal, but it’s not full of action or something jumping out at me. It’s telling me what she needs.

    “Lucinda Seton needed an impressive suitor and she needed one now.

    A prince would be her first choice, but she’d settle for a duke or even a marquess, preferably one who was filthy rich.”

    Maybe that’s why I love reading historical romance. It gives you the feeling of easing into a nice bath instead of jumping off a cliff into water below.

    Great post.

    Posted by Mercy | May 10, 2017, 10:15 am
  8. Hi Mercy!

    I love historical romance because of the clothes and the restrictions. I wouldn’t want to live in the 1800s but, I think, women had to be smart to negogiate their way around all the restrictions placed upon them by society.

    This opener by Sabrina Jeffries reminds me a lot of Jennifer Crusie’s lines. You get the urgency and a sense of the heroine by her priorities. Love Sabrina Jeffries!

    Posted by Donna MacMeans | May 10, 2017, 2:21 pm
    • I think any and all of Jennifer Crusie’s books have great opening lines.

      Instead of getting anything accomplished (and realizing it’s been awhile since I dusted my books) I’ve come across a few more from my keeper shelves:

      “I had not been under the impression trophy wives owned guns.

      Of course, my impression of a lot of things had been changing lately, so the idea of a homicidal contortionist with a designer handbag and a vanity license plate that read DRSWIFEY was, surprisingly, not very surprising at all.”

      NIGHT SKY by Suzanne Brockmann and Melanie Brockmann

      Posted by Becke Martin Davis | May 10, 2017, 3:07 pm
  9. “Just outside London, 1775

    Emma Mary Catherine Langolet stood in the middle of the small, private bedroom at the Pear and Partridge. She was silent with shock. There was blood on her hands, she noticed absently. It was little wonder. The man who lay at her feet seemed composed almost entirely of blood and most of it now formed a pool beneath him, staining the inn’s shabby carpet, staining her slippers and the hem of her dress.”

    TO LOVE A DARK LORD by Anne Stuart

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | May 10, 2017, 3:10 pm
    • Love Anne Stuart. Notice how the big names have great openers. They grab you and pull you right in. ALso notice the historical has the location and date in a timeline – that’s fairly standard, and she puts you in the time period with the name of the Inn – The Pear and Partridge.

      Posted by Donna MacMeans | May 10, 2017, 6:18 pm
  10. “Nixie Leighton-Brace wasn’t afraid to die. She’d been in the humanitarian business long enough to know that death was hardly the worst thing that could happen to a girl. She just didn’t want to go before knocking Dr. James Harper – her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend – on his cheating ass.”

    KISS THE GIRL by Susan Sey

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | May 10, 2017, 3:12 pm
  11. Thanks so much for hanging out with us today, Donna! ((hugs))

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | May 10, 2017, 10:22 pm
  12. Thank Becke – I had a great time.

    I’ll leave the contest running for a while in case anyone else wants to enter.

    Hope to see you (and everyone else) in Detroit in August!

    Posted by Donna MacMeans | May 10, 2017, 11:22 pm
  13. Just done a huge move from one end of the country to another so haven’t much time but great post and you have me thinking.

    Posted by Barbara | May 11, 2017, 5:23 am
  14. Thanks Barbara!

    Wow – that’s quite a move. Good luck and happy writing in your new digs! 🙂

    Posted by Donna MacMeans | May 11, 2017, 9:28 am
  15. I liked seeing the variety of catchy opening lines out there, and I like that you included some with more context.

    Posted by Emily | May 11, 2017, 9:11 pm
    • Hi Emily –

      I think providing more content – along with the catchy line – is one of the hallmarks of a great first line. YOu only have so much time to get your premise out there before the reader puts the book back on the shelf. Glad you enjoyed them.

      Posted by Donna MacMeans | May 13, 2017, 1:06 pm
  16. Sent via email by Lois Miller:

    Hello Donna!
    Thanks ahead for sending me the free read.
    I liked the Searching for Disaster opening line the best. I memorized it
    then ran through the house hunting down my husband to say it to him.
    I got the biggest kiss ever!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | May 12, 2017, 3:27 pm
  17. MINDSWEEPER arrived this afternoon and I’m already about 50 pages into it. Thanks for the recommendation! Also received A DUKE TO REMEMBER. Saving that for the weekend!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | May 12, 2017, 10:11 pm


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