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January 11, 2016

The First Sentence of a Book



The first sentence of a story is the most important sentence. It has to draw in the reader. It has to be able to bear the weight of the entire story, of the thousands of sentences that follow it. It’s a first impression and we all want to make a good first impression.

A boring first sentence may not break a story, but a first sentence that is either exciting, intriguing or funny will pique a reader's interest. A first sentence that invigorates a reader’s senses, opens a portal to a new world, or introduces the main character in a clever way will keep a reader reading and wanting more.


How do you know if your first sentence is a good one?

1. Look at it separately. Read it. What does it do? Does it evoke an emotion? Does it introduce a character or world? Does it lay the ground work for a mystery? If it does one of these things then the odds are that the sentence is good…or getting there.

2. Once the first sentence has a purpose, look at the words you’ve used. Are they weak? If so, replace them. Find stronger verbs, adverbs, and adjectives. Make them good!

3. Check out the writing. Is the first sentence as vivid as it could be if you’re using it to begin world building? Is it as suspenseful as it could be if it’s opening a thriller? If it’s introducing a character, does it paint a clear image and evoke the correct feelings you want your reader to have toward that character?

4. Examine the length. Shorter first sentences are better. At least in my experience. You don’t want a long-winded first sentence. Save some of that for the paragraph to follow. Shorter sentences means the reader will get to the next sentences faster. The sooner the reader can dive into your story the better.

5. Now read it with the following sentences. Although the first sentence has to be a winner, the others have to stand up and do their part too.



Here are the first three sentences of my published works:

HURRICANE CRIMES: She was going to die. At least according to the nervous weatherman on her flickering television screen. An image of what was supposed to be Florida wavered in and out, except it was barely visible beneath the swirling mass of a Category 5 hurricane named Sabrina, which seemed to have a vendetta against the Sunshine State.

30 SECONDS: Dani Hart jogged up the five flights of stairs to her small but homey apartment in the heart of Cleveland. Fresh snow soaked the bottom of her scrubs, the soles of her wet sneakers squeaked against the wood, and her white medical coat floated behind her. After pulling an all-nighter at the E.R., topped with three emergency operations, she couldn’t wait to sink into bed with a pint of coffee flavored ice cream.

GHOST OF DEATH: I’m dead. Jolie Montgomery didn’t know how she died, but all of a sudden she stood over her body in an alley. Her dark hair swam in a pool of blood.

WITCH OF DEATHThe moon was a ceramic bowl overflowing with milk in the amethyst sky, and all the stars were sugar crystals. At three o’clock in the morning, the suburban neighborhood slept with its manicured lawns, matching mailboxes, and cars parked in spotless driveways. All the residents were asleep in their beds, dreaming dreams of beauty, emptiness, and horror. 



SHARE: One of your favorite first sentences from a published work or WIP.



76 comments:

Denise said...

'Who is John Galt?' Of the hundreds of books I've read, that opening line still stays with me today when I have forgotten all others.

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

I love a good first line! I usually give a story/novel a little longer though before I stop reading - a few paragraphs, a few pages.

Jeffrey Scott said...

I like how Seismic Crimes opening sentences contrast Hurricane Crimes opening sentences. Very clever.

My somewhat disappointing opening lines from Writers Block follow. After reading this, I guess they are kind of awkward and lengthy. :( I may need to work on the opening lines of all my stories.

Glancing around and not seeing who he was looking for, Erick inspected his watch to check the time. Time wasn't actually a concern, he was meeting his girlfriend Jenni and would wait however long it took, checking his watch was involuntary. When he looked up she was suddenly there and this made Erick jump. She always found a way of sneaking up on him or being there when he least expects it

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I've gotten better with first lines. My favorites are from my second and fourth books. Both convey the character's personality right away.

Beverly Stowe McClure said...

Very good advice. One of my favorites: "Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death." John Green's The Fault in our Stars.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I spend a lot of time on the first sentence of each of my novels. I've learned not to judge a book by that first sentence because writer tries to make it great.

Karen Walker said...

I don't think I paid enough attention to my first line in my debut novel. This is great advice, Chrys. Thanks.

Lidy said...

I love the opening line from Huck Finn,
“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.”
And “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number 4, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much,” from Harry Potter.

Pat Hatt said...

I usually do pretty good with the first lines, at least I think lol

Chrys Fey said...

That is a good first line. :)

Chrys Fey said...

I usually give a book a few chapters before I stop reading.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Chrys - great advice .. the same in fact goes for blog posts - I try and entice with the title and then the first line ... I'm sure I'm not always successful - but it's sort of in my head.

I remembered Who is John Galt ... considering I haven't read the book for 40+ years ... off the top of my head I can't think of another ... but I see other readers can ...

Cheers Hilary

Chrys Fey said...

I'm glad you noticed the contrast in those first sentences and liked it. :)

Hmm...without reading the rest, I can see there's not much of a hook. Maybe mention where he is and who he's waiting for them have her pop up and scare him. I think that would be good. :)

Chrys Fey said...

I have to read your first book to see those othere lines. And trust me when I saw I will read it this year!

Chrys Fey said...

John Green is just a genius. I loved everything about The Fault in our Stars!

Chrys Fey said...

Good point!

Chrys Fey said...

I was taught that the first line for essays had to hook readers, so I always try to make a good one. :)

Chrys Fey said...

I always loved the "thank you very much" part. :)

Chrys Fey said...

LOL. it's truly hard to know unless readers tell you.

Chrys Fey said...

I'm sure my blog post titles are a bore. And I'm not sure if the first sentence hooks but there's always good info. :)

My first comment was for "Who is John Galt?" :)

Sarah Foster said...

I struggle with first lines so much! I've changed the first line of my WIP so many times and I still don't think it's good enough. The current version is: "I won't deny the fact that I like to cause trouble." I'll probably change it several more times, though.

Chrys Fey said...

I like that first line! It sounds just like Jordan.

Carrie-Anne said...

One of my favorite openings lines, from Little Ragdoll, whose first chapter and opening pages I reworked a number of times: "In the world Adicia Éloïse Troy is from, life is more like a Grimms’ fairytale than a Disney fairytale. But sometimes even the darkest, most twisted fairytale has a happy ending, even for a poor girl from the Lower East Side." It sets the scene for Adicia's journey over the next 15 years, and lets the reader know there are shades of a modern-day Grimms' fairytale.

betty said...

So true the importance of a good opening sentence to grab someone's attention to the book. I'm thinking of the opening line of A Tale of Two Cities; It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

betty

Jeffrey Scott said...

If I can ask, how's this?
"Anxiously, Erick checked the time. He was waiting for Jenni, his girlfriend, after school and would wait however long it took. Checking the time was involuntary. When he looked up again, she was suddenly there. This made Erick jump. She had a nasty habit of sneaking up and suddenly being there when he least expects it."

M.J. Fifield said...

I always liked the opening sentence of Harry Potter—I see someone already mentioned it. A Tale of Two Cities is great, too. And though I didn't care for Catcher In The Rye as a whole, I do love that first sentence.

Great post!

Roland D. Yeomans said...

"He was born with the gift of laughter and the knowledge that the world was mad." Sabatini's Scaramouche. I always loved that first line -- even incorporated it into my ABOUT ME on my blog.

You're right: short is best. Best of sales. :-)

Chrys Fey said...

Much better. You could cut out "and would wait however long it took." That's up to you, though. I love the last sentence there. It really gives you a feel of both the characters. Oh, and "expected it." ;)

Chrys Fey said...

That opening is brilliant! I love that you mentioned Grimm's fairytales and Disney fairytales.

Chrys Fey said...

I love the opening line for A Tale of Two Cities. It's pure genius!

Chrys Fey said...

I didn't like Catcher in the Rye either but the first sentence is memorable.

Chrys Fey said...

That first line is so poetic. Love it!

Nick Wilford said...

This is some great advice. Coming up with a great first line is probably something that happens after many drafts. It's worth thinking about a lot. Two come to mind - "It was the day my grandmother exploded" from The Crow Road by Iain Banks, a classic line. And "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit". Simple, but really makes me want to find out more about hobbits. :)

sage said...

Norman Maclean's "A River Runs Through It" is some powerful and very tight writing. It opens, "In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing." In his novella, you learn about all three: religion, family and fly fishing.

Patsy said...

Your opening sentences are excellent.

My favourite of those which I've written is, 'Above her, a seagull screamed'. That's from 'Paint Me a Picture'.

Sherry Ellis said...

Those are good tips for writing first sentences. I like all of your examples from your work.

Liz A. said...

Sorry, I'm at work, so I don't have access to my first sentence. Which probably needs work, to be truthful.

cleemckenzie said...

I've always loved, "The first thing I did was steal a body." It inspires me to write good first sentences.

diedre Knight said...

I love (and often require) a good first sentence. It's when you decide to kick your shoes off and stay awhile or pick up another book. "I lost an arm on my last trip home," (Kindred) comes to mind. You've got some great ones too;-)

Chrys Fey said...

Great examples of first sentences that use different techniques to hook readers.

Chrys Fey said...

Religion, family, and fly fishing...a nice mix. :)

Chrys Fey said...

Thank you, Patsy! :D

Oh, I can see a woman standing on a beach with a seagull flying overhead. And I don't even know if she's on a beach or not. lol

Chrys Fey said...

Thank you, Sherry! :D

Chrys Fey said...

That's okay. If you can share it sometime, I'd love to read it. :)

Chrys Fey said...

Steal a body? How can you not be intrigued by that?

Chrys Fey said...

Thanks! :)

Gosh, that must've been a dangerous trip home...definitely a good opening line.

Lisa Thomson said...

Your first lines really are effective. They draw the reader right in! Great opener for Seismic Crimes! You've got me looking at my first lines in my short story collection and that's a good thing. I think they need work LOL. I'll share this one:

He took a deep breath before answering her question. Her tiny face staring up at him, pleading. Her rumpled pajamas and hair revealed his ineptitude as a father, he feared.

sherry fundin said...

I sure want to be hooked from the opening line. You do a great job of that, Chrys. I enjoyed getting a peek at some others your commenters were willing to share.

sherry @ fundinmental

Anonymous said...

You went against the gain with Seismic Crimes. She DIDN'T. Everyone else was dead. LOL
I think Witch of Death is the most interesting. It's like why the idilic description.

Yolanda Renée said...

Great stuff! The first pages of the manuscript is something I spend a lot of time on, but the first line - even more!

Chrys Fey said...

Your opening makes me want to know what the little girl asks him. Good job!

Chrys Fey said...

Thanks, Sherry! I'm enjoying the lines others are sharing too. :)

Chrys Fey said...

Hahaha! That made me laugh. I'm glad you liked the opening for Witch of Death more...I worked on it the most.

Chrys Fey said...

The first pages are definitely the most crucial to get right...and the toughest.

Sandra Cox said...

Great first sentences, Chrys. I especially like: I'm dead.

Chrys Fey said...

I love that one too. ;)

Liz A. said...

My first paragraph: The way to the Maroon Room was clearly marked, so that’s not my excuse. I guess it was curiosity. The Royal Gardens were renowned for their beauty, and it was likely I would not venture into Torindalkeyp again, not after. I figured it would be better if I saw them when I could.

Birgit said...

You are so right with that first sentence being magical..or at least should be. I love the art you showed especially since it is a female artist. My favourite..."It was the best of time, it was the worst of times...."

J.H. Moncrieff said...

Hmm...I'm sensing a death theme. :)

One of my favourite first sentences was always, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

When I saw how atrocious the actual sentence is in its entirety, I was so disappointed. I wish Dickens had stuck to the abridged version.

I also love this one, from The Poisonwood Bible:

Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.

Unknown said...

I surprised myself a little while ago when I reread a piece I'd started writing during high school. The whole first planet was just one line that said:

The planet couldn't take it anymore.

I found I couldn't put the piece down, although there did end up being some quite cringeworthy parts as well.

TBM said...

Ah the pressure right from the start. It ain't easy being a writer.

emaginette said...

Thanks. Your timing is perfect. :-)

Anna from elements of emaginette

Romance Book Haven said...

Great advice and examples.

Chrys Fey said...

You're welcome! :)

Chrys Fey said...

Far from easy. But we love what we do. :)

Chrys Fey said...

Thank you! :)

Chrys Fey said...

That is a classic opening. One of my favorites.

Chrys Fey said...

Definitely a death theme. ;)

I don't know that one from The Poisonwood Bible, but that is an intriguing sentence.

Chrys Fey said...

It's always fun to read things we wrote in high school. I'm always amazed and then embarrassed. lol

Sandra Cox said...

Also like: She was going to die:)

nashvillecats2 said...

Excellent point to have made.
Yvonne.

Denise Covey said...

I agree. Nothing like a riveting first sentence or two. I enjoyed your examples from your novellas. Hooked the reader right away.
I am currently working on my first few sentences for a submission. Only came up with this new sequence yesterday so will continue working on it, but it is much better than the passivity of my original...

"It happens every morning. That seeping dread. Jolting her feet until they burn from toe to heel, creeping up her limbs like a colony of fire ants, enflaming her throat so she gasps for breath. Finally, it settles like a leaden ball in the pit of her stomach."

Chrys Fey said...

Glad you think so.

Chrys Fey said...

Whoa! That opener is amazing...flawless. Your prose is unbelievable.

Michelle Wallace said...

A timeous post.
I'm off now to check the first sentence of a short I'm contributing to an upcoming anthology.

Look at it in this way, a weak opening sentence may just be the reason a potential fan (or agent) passes your story by. You have to nail that first sentence/paragraph!

BB said...

I've always believed that that first sentence in a book was so important. Great post.