The High Stakes of First Sentences


You probably already know that a story’s first line is of upmost importance. Not only does it set the tone and expectations for the rest of the novel, but the first line also introduces tension and hints at bigger things to come. Your story’s first line introduces readers to your world, and if readers don’t like what they read, they may not go to the next sentence.

That’s a lot of pressure for one line!

The best way to learn how to write phenomenal first sentences is to read a lot of first lines.

Here are some great examples:

“I tell Mama I waitress in the Village so she don’t have to cut me out of her heart.”

–Kiran Kaur Saini, “A Girl Like Elsie”

“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.”

–Norman Maclean, “A River Runs Through It”

“In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits.”

–John Updike, “A & P”

“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”

–Hunter Thompson, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”

“There are cavemen in the hedges again.”

–Stacey Richter, “The Cavemen in the Hedges”

The trick with first sentences is to start with the stakes high and then keep moving up. Grab readers from the get go and then don’t let them go!

What are some great first sentences you know of?

(Photo courtesy of Keith Williams.)

1 thought on “The High Stakes of First Sentences

  1. Bruce Rowe

    Best first sentence IMHO is the following from Toni Morrison’s “Paradise” (1997):

    “They shoot the white girl first.”

    Six words that make everyone want to finish at least the first page if not the first chapter or the whole book. Look at the number of questions it forces us to ask: Who are “They”? What is going on? “First” means they shoot at least one other person: who? How many? (Again, what is going on??) Why “girl”? How old? And why is her race important?

    I teach comp and creative writing and I use this sentence and the first sentences of Orwell’s “”1984” and his essay “The Lion and the Unicorn” (1941):

    “As I write, highly civilized people are flying overhead, trying to kill me.”


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