First Sentences (by Denice Whitmore )

In fiction writing, a good first sentence pulls the reader into the story. It makes them want to keep reading. The reader forms his first impression of you as a writer, your characters, and your writing style and then makes a decision whether they want to spend their time and invest emotionally in your book, all from the first sentence. No pressure. Right?

I have attended first page reads at the Las Vegas Writer’s Conference where the panel of agents and publishers (who are supposed to raise their hand when they would stop reading) shot their hands up during the first sentence and no one heard the rest of the page because the first sentence was weak and didn’t spark their interest.

Personally, I struggle with the first sentence of every chapter. I want the beginning of each chapter to grab my readers. When they feel like putting the book down at the end of the chapter and they turn the page just to take a peek(you know you have done this) they get hooked in and read just one more chapter(who cares if it’s one am).

Think of the first sentence as an invitation. You, the writer, are inviting the reader to join you on a journey. Will it be a fun journey? A perilous journey? A heart wrenching journey? Or maybe a combination. Find the spot where the journey begins—that point where the character jumps off the cliff, straight into the conflict that will propel the story forward.

So how do we hook the reader right off the bat? Here are few examples from some of my favorite books.

One of my favorite authors is Maggie Stiefvater. The first book I read by her was Shiver. It’s the first in her series about the Wolves of Mercy Falls. Here is the first sentence of that book. 

I remember lying in the snow, a small red spot of warm going cold, surrounded by wolves.

What a great opening. She uses the white of the snow and the red spot to paint a visual. She uses warm and cold to awaken other senses. And just for the kicker she adds in ‘surrounded by wolves.’ Now I have to know what will happen. I am worried for this person lying in the cold snow with warm red, and wolves. How did they get there? But more importantly, how do they get out of there? She found the spot where her character is smack in the middle of it and starts her story there.

I read a lot of books with my four boys. Our copy of The Lighting Thief by Rick Riordan is a dog-eared, yellow-paged, crumpled, well-read paperback (and I still have two, not old enough to read it yet). Here is the first line.

Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood.

Riordan immediately sets up the voice of Percy Jackson as the main character. He introduces the problem facing Percy and how he feels about it right from the start. He doesn’t give away all the details leaving the reader wondering—half-blood what? And, what’s so bad about being a half-blood? What kind of adventure will this be? We were hooked right away.

I often browse the book section at Costco. One day I found a book by Brandon Sanderson. As it turns out, it was his debut novel for young-adult audiences called, The Rithmatist. I had recently been introduced to him by my nephew and enjoy watching his lecture series on his website but had not yet read any of his books. I am an avid young adult reader so I bought it (loved it by the way). Here is the first line of the prologue.

Lilly’s lamp blew out as she bolted down the hallway.

He lets us know from the get go that we are not in our modern world. This girl carries a lamp with a flame not a flash light or a cell phone with a flash light app. She is running from something and now she is in the dark as well. It gives a feeling of foreboding for Lilly and we need to find out what will happen to her.

So remember to invite your readers into your world, where the action starts, giving a sense of the characters voice and introducing a question to their mind (Oh. Is that all?). Sounds daunting when you put it like that. But you don’t have to write your first sentence first. Complete your first draft and you will intimately know your characters, their quirks, voice and all the wonderful attributes that you wrote into them. Sometimes knowing how the story ends will help you find the perfect beginning.

Keep writing. 

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