Finding the first sentence of your story is the most significant compositional task for any author. It is the first time the narrator’s voice is heard, the first time a scene is set, and the only moment a writer has to hook a reader for the duration of their tale.
– To see the discussion about the topic, click here –
Let us take a moment to examine a few starting sentences.
“There was a legend about the well in the garden.”
Not bad, especially when you know that the above line came from a Random First Line Generator. Yes, such a thing exists. Although the sentence possesses many good traits, such as the element of surprise and the promise of further detail, there is far more that needs to be considered. It is the voice of a robot, the style of an automated generator. There is no soul or life to the line, and there is nothing in it that demands to be felt. There are various categorizations of first sentences on the vast plains of the internet, and it is important for us to consider these categories when reading an opening line.
By far the most important thing to note is that a first sentence cannot be boring. A first sentence needs to raise questions, eyebrows, and/or heart rates.
This seems like a trivial self-explanatory fact, but what does it mean? If you want your reader to move past that first sentence, it pays to avoid anything that is lagging or discouraging. Your first sentence is an offered hand, a doorway that leads to an adventure; it is an invite to continue. A boring invite simply will not do. Offer treasure, offer romance, offer mystery, a thrill, a laugh, just make sure you offer something. Your story is treasure, the first sentence is the map.
Compare these two opening lines.
“She stood at the edge of town, staring at the sunset.”
Good for her. Do we care? Eh…not really. Not so much. There is nothing extraordinary here, not even the sunset. There is no promise of an event worth hearing about, no characterisation to begin development, no moment worth following. If this sentence were a door it would remain closed.
“She stood upon the edge of town, figure rigid, blue eyes desperately searching the sunset.”
Interesting…maybe. But it’s too much. Edge of town, rigid figure, desperate blue eyes, searching the sunset. Too much. There are features here that could make a phenomenal short paragraph, even a great story bio. However as an opening line there is too much unnecessary detail. If this sentence were a door…well…you might open it to see what the fuss is all about, but that doesn’t mean you think it will be a good adventure.
“At the very last day, she stood at the edge of town, staring at the newly green sunset.”
There we go. Better. There is a promise in this line, one that suggests a history for the character and a future for the story. It is the last day – the last day of what? The sunset is newly green – that feels significant all of a sudden. The elements that have been tied together here offer enough to entice interest but they do not give away too much. If this sentence were a door, you would push it open and see what lay beyond.
Another thing to remember: Surprise your readers. Promise them something more.
You know you want this. You are a writer and you want to tell stories that are not just read, but that are re-read, re-told, suggested, talk about. You want a story that takes on a life of its own. So come on, give them something they can get hooked on; give your readers little secrets, trail them along with breadcrumbs and have them believing in the journey and its final outcome. Remember though – you are the one holding the cards. You are the one who knows what comes next, while your readership does not (not yet). This is your advantage, but it may also be a downfall. Your knowledge and your plans for a story may surprise, but they may also confuse. The worst thing you can do to a reader is confuse them. Question your readers, have them question characters and events, but never ever confuse your audience. A confused audience means one thing – a confused story. Obscurity is good, but remember that a confused mind creates a contrary reader. They may very well decide that what is to come is not worth working out the tangle in their own head. So they put the book down…and they find something else.
Now – the most important thing. Pay attention. Your opening line is your voice. Be loud, be clear, be interesting. Be you. A few years ago Stephen King gave an interview to The Atlantic’s Joe Fassler about first sentences. He says:
With really good books, a powerful sense of voice is established in the first line.[…] A line like “This is what happened,” [he is referring to his favorite first line in Douglas Fairbairn’s novel, Shoot] doesn’t actually say anything – there’s zero action or context – but it doesn’t matter. It’s a voice, and an invitation, that’s very difficult for me to refuse. It’s like finding a good friend who has valuable information to share. Here’s somebody, it says, who can provide entertainment, an escape, and maybe even a way of looking at the world that will open your eyes. In fiction, that’s irresistible. It’s why we read.”
If you take anything away from this post – take that. Your voice is what distinguishes you from other authors; it is what a reader opens a book for, it is what they hear throughout a story, it is what they know as you. An audience will be loyal to an author, to their style and tone, to their presentation – to their voice. Be elaborate, wry, sarcastic, nostalgic, witty, effervescent…be you. It might take practice to find your voice, and even more to maintain it across a variety of narratives, but your persistence and patience will pay off.
So…what to do?
Some authors write their first line first. Some leave it until last. One thing I can promise you though – that first line in your favourite story has probably been written and re-written more times than you realise. It is such an important thing; it is so integral to the story – if it needs to evolve then it must.
As Stephen King so eloquently states:
“A book won’t stand or fall on the very first line of prose – the story has got to be there, and that’s the real work. And yet a really good first line can do so much to establish that crucial sense of voice – it’s the first thing that acquaints you, that makes you eager, that starts to enlist you for the long haul. So there’s incredible power in it, when you say, come in here. You want to know about this. And someone begins to listen.”
So…what do you think?
What do I think? I think you should write. I think you should write off of story prompts, I think you should try using a first line generator and see what happens. Most of all though I think that you should be yourself. I think you should write for love and passion. I think you should be the author you dream of being.
And it all starts when you type that very first line.
What is your favorite/most difficult aspect of first lines?
I think too much is made of “first lines.” This might come from the constant barrage of marketing and advertising that has been scooped onto fiction these days. Everything has to “sell.” The problem with this is that everyone is trying to be mysterious or coy or ironic rather than simply telling a story. Sometimes a story just has to begin. It’s true that opening with “At the very last day” offers a great hook, but it might become gimmicky if this story isn’t really about the “last day,” and when we find out what this means a few chapters later it might lead to disappointment, or a sense that we were duped. The same is true for books that begin “To begin with, I died yesterday,” etc. I don’t want to feel that I’m being pitched to in the first lines, as if you’re writing a synopsis to an agent. Also, as a reader, I can’t honestly remember any first lines of novels–well, except for Pride and Prejudice and The Hobbit. I remember lines halfway through the book that sing out to me. A beginning is simply a first step (as King mentions above), and not the entire journey. However, look at the beginning of The Hobbit: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” This breaks all the “selling” rules but works because it sounds like one of Gollum’s riddles–simple, folkloric, and still a bit enigmatic. We don’t need to know about hobbits or holes, and the narrator assumes we already know about them (though at one point in this novel’s history, we didn’t!). This is a great article, but again, I worry that writers stress out about selling from the first page. Just write a story…if writing only becomes about marketing then we should all quit and let the agents and publishers write their own books!
It’s funny, I was just talking to a friend about this too. I disagree, a little, with Joshua because it IS selling. And it is important. The hook has to set, and while I might read the first paragraph while browsing – if that hook isn’t set quickly then I’m “outta there.”
It truly is important to me that a first sentence grabs the reader. King’s quote has to be taken seriously too, though – if you start in one voice (that does sound interesting) and then it suddenly sounds like someone else is telling the story … ugh. Interest lost!
So my remedy is to start close to the beginning where I have a particular scene I want to set up, but just pretend the reader is aware of what’s going on. Just start writing! And then later during my “Edit mode” when I’ve written a fair amount of the story, I may either have changed my mind about how it should start or some critical detail about the begining of the story anyways. Quite often, I have some sentence later on that I say “that’s brilliant!” and use as that Dreaded First Sentence.
The first sentence does set a tone, and it has to be consistent with the rest of the story. But I think too many writers spend too time stuck in “marketing mode,” always thinking “what does my audience think of this?” You might capture a reader’s interest this way, but it’s also a sure fire way to write in a generic, by-the-numbers fashion. Remember that today’s “hook” is tomorrow’s cliche. Many of the things that grab readers today are rooted in the moment, and might get an eye roll in a few years–heck, in a few months. However, if you’re writing a story that is important to you it will sell better than if you’re trying to endlessly market yourself. And if a reader leaves after the first sentence, then he/she is a bad reader–and who needs them? 🙂
It’s ok to write the first sentence last as well. Why start with the first sentence at all?
It’s ok to write the first sentence last as well, why start with the first sentence at all?