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What should be in the first sentence of your novel?
Newbery-winning author Richard Peck said, “You are only as good as your first sentence.”
That sounds a bit harsh. Is it fair for someone to judge your entire story from only one sentence?
Maybe not, but it happens all the time.
Think about people browsing in a book shop, trying to decide which one to buy. If a cover attracts their attention, they often open the book and read the first few lines. Having worked at Barnes & Noble for nine years, I saw this over and over. Based on if they like the first few lines or not they will either set the book down (often in the wrong place) or take it to the cash register.
Book shoppers often make a choice from the first few lines. As writers we have to accept this.
Now let’s think about the agents and editors you will be submitting your story to. Their schedules are already packed without looking at submissions from potential new authors. And they get hundreds of these submissions each week. You have literally seconds to grab their attention if you want them to keep reading.
As writers we must accept this as well.
So with this in mind, what qualities should a first sentence have?
Let’s take a look at some authors who did it right.
Let’s start with Richard Peck. Here is the opening line of A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO: You wouldn’t think we’d have to leave Chicago to see a dead body.
What does this opening line do for us?
Right away it puts questions into the mind of the reader. Who was the dead body they saw? What was the circumstance that caused them to see a dead body? How will they react to seeing the dead body?
If we put intriguing questions into the minds of readers with the first sentence, they will be more likely to keep reading.
What else does this first sentence accomplish?
We see some personality right away. We see the main character can be a little snarky, acknowledging Chicago’s high crime rate – basically saying, tongue in cheek, he’s surprised he saw a dead body for the first time in a place other than Chicago.
So we have intriguing questions put into our heads and a first glimpse of a character’s personality, and Richard Peck pulls it off with only thirteen words.
You’re only as good as your first sentence? Richard Peck practiced what he preached.
Let’s look at more examples of first sentences that put questions in our minds:
NEVER THAT FAR by Carol Lynch Williams “What you doing, girl?” Daddy said when the burying was done. Who or what is being buried? What is the main character doing that prompts her dad to ask this question?
IF YOU’RE READING THIS by Trent Reedy My father had been dead seven years the day his first letter arrived. Why/how is the main character receiving letters from his dad seven years after his death? How did the father die?
SARAH, PLAIN AND TALL by Patricia MacLachlan “Did Mama sing every day?” asked Caleb. Right away we see that something happened to Caleb’s mom because he refers to her in the past tense, and we know that he doesn’t remember her very well, if at all, because of the question he asked. So, who is Caleb and what happened to his mom?
As you can see, a good author can do a lot with a first sentence.
Does a first sentence have to put a question in the reader’s mind to be a great opening line?
Not necessarily. Let’s look at HOW I BECAME A PIRATE by Melinda Long. Pirates have green teeth – when they have any teeth at all. This line doesn’t prompt questions like the above examples, however it’s funny. It makes a promise to the reader that if you read this book you will be in for a fun experience.
So if you tap into an emotion with your first sentence, this can hook a reader. Humor. Fear. Anger. Excitement. Etc.
Take a look at the first sentence in your story. Does it cause readers to ask intriguing questions that will prompt them to keep reading? Does it cause the reader to feel an emotion? Does it do both? Neither?
Okay, let’s look at one more example.
FRANNY K. STEIN #1 LUNCH WALKS AMONG US by Jim Benton The Stein family lived in the pretty pink house with lovely purple shutters down at the end of Daffodil Street.
Hmm. This line doesn’t prompt intriguing questions and doesn’t hit us with emotion either. But let’s look at the next two sentences.
Everything about the house was bright and cheery. Everything, that is, except the upstairs bedroom with the tiny round window.
On sentence three we get the line that puts questions into our minds. The hook. Why is this bedroom not bright and cheery like the rest of the house? Who lives in this room?
Though the first sentence is not a good hook by itself, it works quite well as a set-up for the hook we get in sentence three.
The first two sentences sound so every-day and normal that they give the hook in sentence three more of a punch, due to the contrast.
So, if your first sentence serves as a set-up for the hook, that’s okay too.
A word of caution, though. Don’t use too many sentences setting up your initial hook. Remember, many readers won’t give you more than a few lines to grab them. I’d say if your hook isn’t somewhere in the first three sentences, you’re taking a risk.
Thanks for reading. Have fun writing your stories, and make sure your first sentence is doing its job!
Does anyone have other tips for writing the first sentence of a novel? Let us know in the comments section.
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