The infamous first sentence. It can’t be too long, it can’t be too short. It has to have a deep meaning, it needs to hook the reader. You MUST make it interesting. We’ve heard these daunting teachings and many more. Rumors like: Your first sentence must always evoke emotions. True, I agree with that. But must the sentence, the FIRST sentence, in your book contain a tear jerking moment? Is that possible? No. Your first sentence needs to grab the readers attention, not move them to tears hence fourth making them put the book back on the shelves, unread.
Like good table manners, there is an etiquette to writing a first sentence (and the one after that.) Before we get into the FIVE steps to a great first sentence, let’s look at some of the best first sentences in literature to date.
“Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.”
This is a great example for hooking a reader. The complete sentence, while not an intellectual sentence, allows us insight to the rest of the book. It shows us what we are getting throughout the pages. A pretty woman, not beautiful, but eye catching with social skills that were rare for women of that time. It gives us Miss O’Hara’s personality in a nutshell, a look in her life, something to hold on to as we scan the rest of the pages.
Another great first sentence I am sure you have all heard of;
“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”
This sentence, at first sight, might appear amateur, distant from the actual story, but with a deeper look you can tell a lot about Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. A) The Chapter is titled “The Boy Who Lived” and paired with this sentence you can find a deeper meaning to the words. B) The “Boy Who Lived” is a great chapter starter, but JK Rowling chose to make it a chapter header. When paired with the first sentence you can tell a lot about the situation the small boy, who was left on their door step, and his living situation. They appear uptight and aggressive and above all, obsessed with the way they are perceived in the world. No wonder Harry was so happy to leave!
These are just two examples of great first sentences. Yes I could share Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice or, perhaps, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit would have made the cut. But these two works of literature made me want to dig down deep and discuss the meanings of such small amounts of words, compared to the story as a whole.
Now that we have dissected two well written first sentences, let’s put our scalpels away and pull out our notebooks. Here are five steps to crafting a great first sentence:
1: Imagination Is Key
- When writing the perfect first sentence you must think to yourself: What story am I writing? You don’t want to think about the sentence structure so much as the meaning behind the sentence. The first sentence is the the first thing your reader is going to turn to before he goes to check out, while he/she is standing at the oak shelves at Barnes and Nobel, this is the straw that will break (or strengthen) the camel’s back. It is a selling point. Use your imagination to decide what you want your reader to see. First impressions are everything and you want yours to be original.
2: Make Promises
- As a reader, there is nothing worse than picking up a book and finding a negative first sentence. The idea that only bad can come from the book I invested time in… it irks me. Put hope in your first sentence. Every reader wants a silver lining. As a writer you should want one too. Let your first sentence have an underlying sense of hope.
3: Incorporate Facts
- Nothing makes a reader salavate like a good ole secret. Let the reader in on one of your main plot points. No, I’m not crazy. Don’t tell them how the book ends, give them a taste. Let them see that there is more to the story than meets the book jacket. Mystery doesn’t just kill the mood, it makes your reader run away from his/her bookshelf annoyed.
4: Conjure Emotion
- I firmly believe it is impossible to make a reader cry with an opening sentence. I have read many books. It has never happened to me. Just because they don’t cry doesn’t mean they can’t laugh. It also doesn’t mean that the reader can’t have a dire “what the heck is that supposed to mean?!” moment, making them turn the page to learn more. Your first sentence should have enough emotion to evoke some emotion. It could be laughter, sadness for the main character, pity for the antagonist. Make your reader feel provoked to turn the page and find out what happens to your characters.
5: Practice Makes Perfect
- Just like riding a bike, practicing writing first sentences helps -a lot. Do Not invoke this rule when beginning your story. Try it during the editing process. Try writing three alternative sentences then set them aside, leaving them in a drawer -unseen- for a few days. Then pull them out. If you still like them, edit them down. Delude the amount of words used, edit grammar mistakes, set them back in the drawer for another day or two. Repeat this process until you feel you have created the perfect sentence for your story.
Whoa. That took less time than I thought it would… right. These five tips might not be for you. You might find one or two of them useful, you might find them all to be helpful. These are things I keep in mind during the editing process. Remember, you are your own person and some things that are helpful to one person might not apply to you.
God loves you!