Tag Archives: first sentence

The High Stakes of First Sentences

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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.)

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Sucking Readers into Your Story: the Narrative Hook

204NeverlandThe narrative hook is how you grab readers’ attention from the onset. It’s a speedy way to draw readers into your story, making readers want to know what’s going to happen. This literary device is what keeps readers reading.

A narrative hook is important because readers, literary agents, and publishers dedicate very little time toward deciding if a book is worth reading. Sometimes this time is as little as a few seconds! Your story needs to grab people right off the bat.

One of the best ways to utilize a narrative hook is to have it pose a question in readers’ minds. This doesn’t mean literally writing a question into the text, but showing the readers a scene that formulates questions. Here’s an example:

“Across the room a woman holds her front teeth in the palm of her hand.”

  • Ron Rash, “Not Waving, But Drowning”

From this opening line, readers want to know what happened to the woman. Why is she standing there holding her teeth? Etc.

Narrative hooks arouse readers’ curiosity.

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

  • George Orwell, “1984”

It’s likely you’ve seen an analog clock at some point in your life. Have you ever seen one strike thirteen? It’s doubtful. Clocks don’t strike thirteen, so why are they doing so here?

Great narrative hooks hint at something more. They intrigue readers by showing there’s more than what’s on the surface. They should set up expectations, and then follow through on them. If you mention the protagonist’s kid sister in the first paragraph, she should play a big role in the story.

“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.”

  • Suzanne Collins, “The Hunger Games”

Prim isn’t physically in the novel for long, but she’s the reason why Katniss, the protagonist, enters The Hunger Games. Prim is the reason the entire novel occurs.

Plus, readers want to know what “the reaping” is.

Narrative hooks should be used early on, usually in the first sentence, sometimes the first paragraph, and rarer, at the end of the first page. Remember, it’s very easy for readers to bail on a story. If they’re not pulled in immediately, they won’t consider the book worth their time. There are agents, editors, and publishers who will reject an entire novel based on the first sentence! That’s a lot of pressure for the opening line, and a very good reason why your opening should be phenomenal.

Typically your original opening is not the one you end up with. As you gain a deeper understanding of your story and characters, you’ll be able to write a better opening. If you write a great hook, readers will have a hard time pulling away from the story.

What are some great narrative hooks you’ve read?

(Photo courtesy of Wikia.)