Your first sentence will determine if your book will sink or swim. Getting all the pieces right is a challenge worth getting right. However, what exactly are the right pieces?
Do your research
You could google, The Best First Lines of Books! or you could make a list of your own favorites and go back to see why they grabbed you. What was it about those novels that made you keep reading? There must be a reason and sometimes the reason can be found in the first line. Here are a few of my favorite first lines:
“We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.”–Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
- “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.”–Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis
- “The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.” –Donna Tartt, The Secret History
These are all powerful and if you know the books, a complete summary of all the important elements which made them incredible works of writing. Let’s break down those elements.
First Sentence Element #1 – Conflict or Unease
Right away we are aware that life is not all sunshine and roses in these examples. Sleeping in a gymnasium that is no longer a gymnasium does not sound at all comfortable and brings to mind emergency situations. Kafka has made a very clear statement about something completely absurd and bizarre–a man is now a vermin and is fully aware of this transformation. In Tartt’s example, we know right away that someone is dead, that the narrator is not alone and the collective might be responsible for Bunny’s undoing.
All novels have conflict. Putting the gist of that conflict in the first sentence is brilliant and will bring your reader into your world right away.
First Sentence Element #2 – Tone
These three examples provoke so many questions which set the tone of the book. We become curious and want to know more. Why is someone sleeping in a former gym? Why has Gregor become a monster and why is he aware of this horror? Bunny is dead and someone knows he’s dead. Why haven’t they told anyone that his rotting corpse is near a mountain?
Questions, questions, questions. These questions set a tone and put your reader on edge. In a sense, you’ve just put the reader on the defense because you’ve gone on the offensive. Do that. Wield your power as a writer and put your reader off guard. Just remember that with great power comes great responsibility. You’re challenging the reader to ask questions, and as a good writer, you need to answer those questions with the rest of the book.
First Sentence Element #3 – POV
In two of the examples, ‘we’ is used as an indicator to inform the reader of more than one narrator or main character. Also, we understand that the events will be told from the first-person perspective. Without really thinking about it, the reader now understands how mentally close they will be with the character(s) they, the reader, are following.
Kafka uses third-person limited, putting us at a bit of distance from Gregor. We will learn about his plight as vermin (and the resulting effects on Gregor’s family) from a knowledgeable place.
Whichever point of view you choose, use it in your first line to establish this connection with your reader. It’s a very subtle act, but a powerful one because you are making a conscious decision that the average reader will pick up on a subconscious level.
First Sentence Element #4 – Sense of Place
In this last element, examine the three examples in terms of a sense of place. In Atwood’s example, we know that something in the greater scheme of world events has shifted. Where the narrator is sleeping wasn’t designed for sleeping. We can also deduce that a large number of people are sleeping in this building. This is a clever, again subtle, way to show and not tell the reader that all is not right.
You, too, can be subtle with your word choice, and clue your readers into the where of your setting without being heavy-handed.
As you write your first sentence, remember this: you are dropping breadcrumbs, not full entrées. Choose your flavors and spices carefully to hint at the meal to come.