Like many writers, I spend lots of time in the bookstore. While there, I peruse the Best Sellers shelf, reading the first sentence of several works to see which ones catch my interest. Most opening sentences are well-written and imaginative, but sometimes a dud slips through (even on the Best Sellers list).
Why does the first sentence matter?
The trouble is that a poorly executed first line often leads to a clunky opening paragraph. Readers will skim an opening chapter, but unless you’re a dead literary genius, it’s unlikely you’ll get the benefit of the doubt if your opening line stinks.
Here’s how you can keep your reader’s attention from the very first line:
Tip # 1: Begin with a vivid image.
Reflect upon your favorite work of fiction. Do you see words on a page or a living, thriving landscape? Most of us remember the images created by a great work rather than actual words printed on a page. In Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, the first sentence reads:
A screaming comes across the sky.
Right away, the reader is left with a vivid auditory and visual sense of the scene. In a few short words, the writer creates a lingering image that simultaneously produces urgency while also building conflict and suspense.
Tip # 2: Begin with the story’s “hook.”
Works commonly possess a “hook” (something specific to the story’s theme, setting, plot, or characters that makes it unique from other works). For example, a science fiction work might focus on a new and interesting interplanetary species, or a horror story might delve into the effects of a growing apocalyptic disease. In the opening line of Invisible Man, Ralph Waldo Emerson simply wrote:
I am an invisible man.
Nothing flashy, just plain old stating the story’s “hook,” which involves a man who cannot be seen. The intention of this approach is to immediately connect the reader with the overarching plot elements associated with the story. An added bonus to starting in this manner is that it provides the writer with a plot direction for the remainder of the first page.
Tip # 3: Begin with a unique voice.
Stories live and die by their characters. For this reason, each character must possess a unique voice to set them apart from other characters. This can be accomplished by odd speech patterns or idiosyncrasies demonstrated during narration or dialogue. J.D. Salinger’s protagonist in The Catcher in the Rye started like this:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
The sentence is long, but it does an excellent job of introducing a unique voice, one that uses phrases like “if you want to know the truth” and “if you really want to hear about it” to create a linguistically rich experience for the reader.
Tip # 4: Begin with shock and awe.
Sometimes the reader needs a little jolt to entice further reading. By providing a shocking statement or revelation, the writer creates a sense of wonder that will cause the reader to continue reading (sometimes just to see if the writer actually has a plan for how it’s all going to turn out). In The Crow Road, Iain M. Banks delivers this first line:
It was the day my grandmother exploded.
Why did his grandmother explode? By starting the narrative in this fashion, the writer earns a few precious seconds of the reader’s time, maybe just enough to hook the reader through the remainder of the scene (or maybe even through the entire work).
Tip # 5: Begin with a bizarre setting.
Just like “shock and awe,” it sometimes benefits a writer to start with a bizarre setting, something that makes the reader both curious and anxious. The trick is to make sure the narrative actually supports the bizarre setting (i.e. If your story begins in a swamp filled with goat cheese and banana nut bread, there better be a compelling reason). In I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith started the story like this:
I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.
With an introduction like that, the writer is guaranteed to provoke another couple sentences or even paragraphs from the reader. Remember, the bizarre setting should be a purposeful setup (not a gimmick), but if used correctly, the strategy gains the reader’s attention and also provides a framework for interesting events following the opener.
The opening sentence is your greeting to the reader, a gateway into your story’s world. Motivate your reader to peek inside, then slam the door behind them.