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 in? 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. (Stephen King, The Gunslinger)
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.
Get the reader asking questions.
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit)
“What’s a hobbit?” the reader will ask. Get the reader asking questions and they’ll keep reading to find answers.
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. (J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone)
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. (Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol)
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. (Dean Koontz, Life Expectancy)
You could always try converting your premise 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. (Cassandra Clare, City of Bones)
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.
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. (John Boyne, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas)
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. (Dean Koontz, Watchers)
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.