Authors hear it all the time: your first sentence must be great. No pressure, right? It may be a bit of an overstatement to say that your first line will make or break you—readers may give you a few more sentences to convince them—but an opening line that gives a reader that immediate “Ooooh” reaction certainly ups your chances of hooking them.
So, what makes a great first sentence? Stephen King says in the Atlantic, “An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.” (“Why Stephen King Spends ‘Months and Even Years’ Writing Opening Sentences"). In The Essential Guide to Writing a Novel, James Thayer says that the world should be unsettled by the end of a good first sentence. Something should be out of whack. There should already be tension. When a reader finishes your first sentence, she should already want to know more.
The other job of your first sentence is to establish the voice or tone of your novel. If your novel is going to have a light and breezy feel, you obviously don’t want to start with, “It was a dark and stormy night.” (Besides, Snoopy has cornered the market on that line.) If your story is from the point of view of a fifteen‑year-old kid, your first sentence should sound youthful, not old and wise.
One of the best ways to learn about great first sentences is to look at a few and see why they work. If you search “great first sentences” online, most of the results will be from classics like Anna Karenina or Pride and Prejudice. While these books do have great openers, they tend to have language that is more formal than writers use today. It can be more helpful to read how contemporary authors are starting their successful novels. Let’s look at a few first lines from books on my bookshelf, first lines that made me want to keep reading.
“A certain feeling comes from throwing your good life away, and it is one part rapture.” (Barbara Kingsolver, Flight Behavior) – This line lets us know right away what the driving force of the book is going to be (either it will show us how she throws her life away or how she comes back from the desire to do so), and that’s a great way to get your readers interested. Most of us can relate to the desire to walk away from our problems (even if we never do it), so we are eager to find out what she does, how she handles it. We want to “know about this,” as Stephen King said. But the line also leaves many questions unanswered. We don’t know why she wants to throw away a good life; we don’t know what “throwing away” means. (Is she going to kill herself? Leave her marriage?) We will want to stick around and find out.
“Before she became the Girl from Nowhere—the One Who Walked In, the First and Last and Only, who lived a thousand years—she was just a little girl in Iowa, named Amy.” (Justin Cronin, The Passage) – This is another line that immediately leaves the reader with questions. What happened to little Amy that transformed her from “just a little girl” into the mythic “Girl From Nowhere”? If she is the first and the last and the only, what happened to everyone else? And how does she live a thousand years, for crying out loud?! Things are definitely out of whack here and readers are going to want answers to their questions. And the way they will answer them is by reading the rest of Mr. Cronin’s book, just as he had hoped.
“I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it.” (Gillian Flynn, Dark Places) Okay, okay, that’s two sentences. But that second sentence is so amazing, I had to share it with you. Talk about setting the tone! There is no doubt that this is going to be a dark, raw novel. There is no doubt that bad things are going to happen. And how can you not be curious about the narrator, someone who can look inside herself and see that meanness and be willing to tell you about it? Not only do these lines leave you curious and set the tone, but they let you know you are in the hands of a great writer. No clichéd metaphors here. Meanness as a meaty organ sitting in your belly? Nope, never heard that one before. I have rarely read two lines that made me want to keep reading more than these two, and I don’t usually read dark, raw novels where bad things are going to happen. That’s the power of a great opening.
Will a mediocre first line doom your book? Maybe not. A reader might give you a few more lines to make your case. But why risk it? There is so much competition for readers’ attention. The sooner you can grab it, the better. Don’t drive yourself crazy worrying about whether your first line is good enough, but do spend the extra time to sharpen its edge so it hooks your readers and holds on tight!