That Pesky First Sentence

You’ve got the premise of your novel. You know your characters, the central conflict, and the ending. You may even know how you want to start your novel, but you can’t figure out that first sentence.3261090753_48fa0fe0a2

The opening sentence to a novel is very important. Many people, including a number of agents and editors, will not read beyond the first sentence if they don’t like it. (That’s a lot of pressure on the first sentence!) That’s why writing a stellar first sentence is monumental. More often than not, what you originally think of for the opening line is not what ends up as the first sentence.

That’s perfectly fine. In fact, in most cases, that’s probably a good thing.

Great opening lines lure readers in. They entice them.

First lines can be:

  • Vivid. “The rabbit had been run over minutes before.” Sabriel by Garth Nix

Most people have seen an animal that’s been hit by a car before, so this sentence sends an instant picture to the forefront of readers’ minds.

  • Create a specific image. “Last December a woman entered my apartment who looked exactly like my wife.” Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen

Readers get an image of a woman entering an apartment, who is identical to the narrator’s wife, but who doesn’t seem to be her. That’s distinct, and catches the attention. (For those familiar with psychology, Capgras Syndrome probably comes to mind.)

  • Ask a question. “They hung the Unregistereds in the old warehouse district; it was a public execution, so everyone went to see.” The Immortal Rules by Julie Kagawa

Who are the “Unregistereds?” Why are they being hung? With that first sentence, readers have questions they want answered.

  • Foreshadow. “I’d never given much thought to how I would die – though I’d had reason enough in the last few months – but if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.” Twilight By Stephanie Meyer

Regardless of whether or not you’re a Twilight fan, the opening line of Stephanie Meyer’s preface leaves readers wondering what’s going to happen to the protagonist to make her think like that.

  • State something absurd. “It was a pleasure to burn.” Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Really? A pleasure? Right away readers want to know what Bradbury is talking about.

  • Clear. “It has been sixty-four years since the president and the Consortium identified love as a disease, and forty-three since the scientists perfected a cure.” Delirium by Lauren Olivier

Readers get a quick summary of the past sixty-some years, and also know what’s going to play a big part in the novel.

  • Short and to the point. “I am the vampire Lestat.” The Vampire Lestat by Anne Rice

This line does nothing overtly other than introduce readers to the protagonist. However, it’s a very impactful line, and says a lot about the character we’ll be following.

  • Surprising. “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” 1984 by George Orwell

Clocks don’t strike thirteen, so what’s going on? One sentence in and there’s already an unexpected question in readers’ minds.

First lines vary widely from each other because books vary widely. A wonderful opening sentence for one novel won’t be right for another one. But what all successful opening lines do is capture readers’ attention.

How do you write a great first line?

Practice.

There’s no getting around it. Write an opening sentence, get feedback on it, rewrite it, get more feedback, and repeat that cycle until people are hooked on your opening sentence.

Another piece of advice?

Don’t fret too much about the opening line until after your first draft is written. As you write your novel, more ideas come to you, and your novel may take a drastic turn during the course of your writing. Once you have all eight-thousand or so words written, then go back to the beginning. Who knows? Maybe you’ll need to rewrite the entire opening to fit your novel’s ending.

What’s your favorite opening line from a novel you’ve read?

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6 thoughts on “That Pesky First Sentence

  1. Pingback: That Pesky First Sentence | Three Rivers Deep -- book series

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