5 Ways to Nail the First Sentence of Your Novel

5 Ways to Nail the First Sentence of Your Novel (And 5 Ways Not To) | Great tips for writing a first sentence that has an impact and avoid turning your reader away. A must read for writers who want to hook their readers with the first sentence.

Why is the First Sentence so Important?

The first sentence can be the difference between a reader moving on to the second sentence and closing the book. They might not stop reading if the first sentence is average or unimpressive, but with so many books to choose from, don’t you want to hook them as soon as possible? Here are my top 5 ways to nail the first sentence of your novel (and 5 ways to not nail it).

5 Ways to Nail the First Sentence

1. Give the reader the 411

I’m going to start off strong with my favourite first sentence ever:

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

Two opposing characters with goals and a setting, all established in twelve words. It’s to the point and tells the reader what’s going on.

2. Huh?

Get the reader asking questions.

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

“What’s a hobbit?” the reader will ask. Get the reader asking questions and they’ll keep reading to find answers.
5 Ways to Nail the First Sentence of Your Novel - Get the Reader Asking Questions. See more ways to nail the first sentence of your novel (and 5 ways not to nail the first sentence) at jackalediting.com

3. Narrators are people too!

Like real-life conversations, readers are more likely to respond to unique voices.

Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

Voice is the idea that there’s a person behind the words. Strong voices make compelling narration.

4. Hit ’em right between the eyes

Start the sentence in one place, and end it somewhere completely different.

Marley was dead: to begin with.

There’s nothing like a twist to get the reader reading.

5. Reel ’em in with a cool concept

Tell the reader something interesting as a promise that you’ll explore it.

On the night that I was born, my paternal grandfather, Josef Tock, made ten predictions that shaped my life.

You could always try converting your concept into a first sentence.

5 Ways to Not Nail the First Sentence

1. “And so I was like”

Books that start with dialogue drive me crazy.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” the bouncer said, folding his arms across his massive chest.

I don’t know who the characters are, where they are or what they’re doing so I don’t care what they’re saying, especially when the dialogue isn’t interesting, like the above example. “You’ve got to be kidding me” is what I say to my dog when he wants to play fetch as soon as we get home from an hour long walk at the park where we played fetch so this line said by the bouncer doesn’t prompt any questions. He could be talking to a kid with a really bad fake ID for all I care.

2. It was a dark and purple night

If I don’t know what’s happening, why should I care where it’s happening? Unless the description is relevant, the reader is probably going to view your purple prose as showing off and not want to read further. Readers don’t always appreciate vivid descriptions of the mundane and trivial, regardless of the author’s vocabulary.

5 Ways to Nail the First Sentence of Your Novel - Don't Use Purple Prose. Read more are jackalediting.com

3. Did you get that?

Longer sentences are harder to understand at the best of times because there are so many ideas to remember and pieces of information to connect by the time you finish the sentence. When you’re new to the subject matter, it’s even harder to make sense of long sentences, which is very off-putting.

One afternoon, when Bruno came home from school, he was surprised to find Maria, the family’s maid – who always kept her head bowed and never looked up from the carpet – standing in his bedroom, pulling all his belongings out of the wardrobe and packing them in four large wooden crates, even the things he’d hidden at the back that belonged to him and were nobody else’s business.

4. But it was all a dream

As soon as I know that the first scene of a novel is a dream, I’m out. I’m not a fan of dreams in novels. So if your first sentence indicates that your first scene is a dream, I’m probably not going to keep reading.

5. Hi, I’m the protagonist

Hi protagonist, I’m bored.

On his thirty-sixth birthday, May 18, Travis Cornell rose at five o’clock in the morning.

Nothing about this sentence catches my attention because it’s a completely ordinary recount of a completely ordinary day as far as I can tell.

As always, there are exceptions. If you know the reason behind certain techniques being put on the ‘don’t’ list, I’m sure you can find a way to make them work.

5 Ways to Nail the First Sentence of Your Novel (And 5 Ways Not To) | Great tips for writing a first sentence that has an impact and avoid turning your reader away. A must read for writers who want to hook their readers with the first sentence. Head over to jackalediting.com for the full article, and more great writing tips from a freelance book editor!


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10 thoughts on “5 Ways to Nail the First Sentence of Your Novel

  1. Would it work if the first scene of my novel is a memory of the past in the form of a dream? The memory is of the protagonist murdering her best friend.

    1. Hi Lilith, I wouldn’t write it off completely because anything can be good if it’s done with good technique; however, a couple of things to consider:

      • Readers don’t always respond well to dreams, especially if they’re at the beginning of the book and are used to reveal backstory because dreams can be perceived as an “easy way out” for revealing information.
      • Dreams aren’t the best way to reveal memories as it’s not in the nature of dreams to be accurate. Our past may pop into our subconscious, but dreams aren’t reruns of our greatest or worst hits so even if we dream about the past, the dream can’t be relied upon to be a truthful retelling of what happened.
      • The effectiveness of this scene will also depend on how you want readers to react to the fact that your protagonist murdered her best friend. You can’t expect readers to be sad or sympathetic as they simply don’t know either of these characters well enough to care about them. If you want your readers to have an emotional reaction to this fact, it might be better to establish a connection between the reader and protagonist first, which should be based on who the character is as a person and not what they’ve been through.

      Good luck!

  2. But in the case of The Watchers example, the entire rest of the paragraph is just as mundane as the first sentence so isn’t it an example of ‘show don’t tell’?

    1. This post demonstrates that you can hook a reader from the first line of your story, so the rest of the paragraph is irrelevant. Further, writing isn’t necessarily good just because it shows rather than tells, especially if the thing you’re showing and the way you describe it are mundane.

  3. “I have a worm living in my head. Telling me to do things I don’t want to do.”

    This is how my book will start

  4. I loved this post. Finally learned something new. Thank you for also including how NOT to write a first sentence. For some reason that was what really grabbed my attention. I mean, I’ve read so many other posts about nailing your first sentence and can’t recall ever reading about what I might be doing wrong. It wasn’t necessarily anything I’d never heard, it’s just that the Dos and Don’ts went together in a way that made me think ‘aha’.
    So thanks for the post!

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