We all know that first impressions matter. That’s why publishers and self-published authors alike put a lot of time and effort into designing brilliant book covers. It’s the first thing that draws your reader into your story. The second thing you need to worry about is your first sentence.
There is a bit of a debate about whether its the first sentence or the first page that hooks a reader and draws them into the tale. I think it’s a combination of both. You need an opening sentence that shines to intrigue your reader enough to move to the second sentence, get through the first page, and eventually finish the book.
So what are those do’s and don’t’s of writing a captivating first sentence?
First Sentence No-No’s
There are some things that you should and should not be doing when it comes to the first sentence of your story. Here’s what you should avoid:
- Dialogue. (I disagree with this one.) The reason for this is that we don’t know who the characters are or why we should care about them.
- Excessive description. Some description is good, but not when it’s long-winded. It gets boring, and that’s a sure-fire way to get readers to close your book.
- Irrelevant information. The first few lines of your story are crucial, so give your reader the necessary information.
- Introducing too many characters. I think we all can agree that too many characters too soon is just confusing. Take the time to introduce your protagonist and let us get to know them before adding anyone else.
The last thing we want to do is annoy or bore our readers off the bat. That’s why we’re going to look at the things we should do next.
(If you want to see some actual opening lines from works in progress, this article by Jericho Writers breaks down what’s good, what isn’t, and why.)
Ways to Write a Great First Sentence
There are several excellent ways to introduce readers to your story:
- With vivid imagery
- By establishing a unique voice
- First sentences are surprising
- Add some humor
- Start with something philosophical
- They’re clear
- First sentences can sum up a story
Before we look into the seven ways to open your story, I want to talk about a couple of things you should keep in mind when working on that first sentence.
First off, you want to set the mood of your novel right away. The “atmosphere” can change throughout your book, regardless of genre, but you want to tie it into your theme or overall message.
Second, you want to make sure whatever you write has some sort of purpose. What do you want to introduce? Is it a character, a setting, something odd? It’s up to you!
Lastly, how do you want to frame your opening line? Is it going to be with dialogue, action, or a statement? By playing around with these openings, you’ll eventually land on something that works for you and your novel. So don’t stress about getting it right on the first try.
#1: A vivid first sentence.
Great first lines invite us into an image that we can see clearly in our minds. It doesn’t have to be an intricate image; it can be as simple as an elf weaving magic between his hands as he sits cross-legged in the grass.
Here are some examples:
“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”James Joyce, Ulysses
We get a sense of what Buck Mulligan looks like and what he’s about to do from this line. It puts the reader into the story right away, and it leaves you wondering a bit about what he’s going to do after he shaves his face.
Great first lines, like the opening montage of a film, lead us into a scene. They use images, lighting, and tone to set the mood that the rest of the opening pages will take.
“The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door.”Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses
With this image, the light from the candle is twisting and bending as someone closes a door. It paints that picture in your mind clearly – it’s one of the reasons many of McCarthy’s books have been adapted into movies.
#2: First sentences establish a unique voice.
We like to hear stories from people who sound interesting and unique. It’s also the perfect time to introduce your reader to your character’s unique voice. For those of you who may not know, voice is the peculiar vocabulary, tone, and phrasings our characters use.
Here’s a classic example:
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye
The remarkable thing about a unique voice is that it can be just as vivid as a description. While reading this passage, didn’t you instantly get an image of a sarcastic, teenage kid?
Here’s another example for you:
“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
Can you hear how haughty the Dursley’s are? That’s all based on four words: thank you very much. A slight change in tone after the second coma. It’s enough to bring the Dursley’s personality into the sentence. They hold to that attitude throughout the rest of the series.
An argument for dialogue
And this is why I take issue with the no dialogue rule. Dialogue is a way to express that voice and get your reader and characters into the middle of the action. While I don’t suggest doing this all of the time, it can work as seen in this quote:
“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.”E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web
From this quote, we can tell that Fern is a young girl and that she’s inquisitive.
#3: A surprising first sentence.
There are so many different ways to start a novel, and readers always appreciate being surprised by how you begin your tale. That’s why it’s good to avoid cliches, especially within the first sentence and pages of your story.
So start it off with something surprising. Many of the lines that we applaud for being brilliant are surprising.
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”George Orwell, 1984
How do you quickly show the world you’re describing is slightly off from the real world? Alter the way time is tracked.
Here’s another example:
“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
This sentence leaves you wondering how Colonel Buendia got in front of a firing squad and what ice has to do with anything.
And to cap off all the surprises, you should kill someone off or announce that someone has died your opening statements. It seems to work well for everyone else.
#4: First sentences are funny.
Humor is closely linked with surprise, and great first lines are often hilarious. Here’s a well-known example:
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
I love this line, and it made me snort-laugh. (Side note: It takes a lot to get me to snort-laugh. And I think this was a combination of it being a funny line and I wasn’t expecting The Hobbit to start this way.)
Here’s another famous example (and a personal favorite):
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice
Sly and satirical. It’s perfect.
#5: A philosophical or factual first sentence.
Some novels begin with a philosophical truth or a factual statement. They look at an entire culture as a whole before bringing it down to an individual level.
It can be as simple as:
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Or as complicated as this opening line:
“It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times, […]”Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Getting your readers to think about big ideas is a great way to pull them into the story. They’ll be interested to see how this fact plays out or if your stance changes by the end of the book.
#6: First sentences are clear.
Many first lines introduce us to the characters we’re going to be following through the book. These sentences are clear and to the point, like these examples:
“Call me Ishmael.”Herman Melville, Moby Dick
“Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. This story is about something that happened to them when they were sent away from London during the war because of the air-raids.”C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
We instantly know who the narrator is, where we are (for the second example), and what this story will be about. But it also leaves us a bit of room to wonder why these places and people are important.
#7: Summarize your story in the first sentence.
The perfect first line doesn’t just begin a novel. It manages to compact the entire story into a single sentence. Here are two examples for you:
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.”Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
In this sentence, Nabokov reveals all the passion, poetry, and disaster that will follow.
“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.”Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis
You can see Samsa’s entire journey, from realizing his plight to his painful alienation to his eventual death.
Getting your first sentence right is probably going to take some time and reworking. So don’t be afraid to fiddle with things until they work for your story.
Capturing the attention of a potential reader boils down to four simple things:
- It piques curiosity.
- You’ve made an emotional connection.
- It provides entertainment.
- It has shocked them.
If you can do that, you’ve got someone interested in your book. The seven methods I’ve listed above are just some ways to do those four things. But at the end of the day, you need to bring it back to what mood you hope to establish and how you frame your introduction.
And if this wasn’t enough inspiration for you, then here’s a list of 100 opening lines from the greats that you draw from. Either way, I don’t want you to overthink this because you can always change it if you don’t like it.
What’s your favorite first sentence? Do you have any first sentence pet-peeves (like starting a story with dialogue)?
Stay safe, everyone.
Until next time.