In the process of writing a novel or memoir—or anything, really—no single sentence is more outright intimidating than the first. It isn’t easy to figure out how to write a great first sentence.
You hear it in workshops, college classrooms, writer’s conferences, and how-to books, and for that matter in blog posts like this one written by book editors like me: The first sentence needs to hook the reader. If the first sentence doesn’t engage the reader, why bother with the second? There are millions and millions of other books out there. There are thousands and thousands of other submissions.
That’s a lot for any one sentence to live up to. It’s not difficult to understand why writers agonize over it. But learning how to write a great first sentence and nailing the hook doesn’t have to be scary. It certainly isn’t easy, but here in the third installment of our series on the opening pages, we’ll run through some ideas and concepts to help you determine what to do, and what not to do, to start off your story in just the right way.
[Missed the first article in this series? Click here to get caught up!]
Utilize Action Over Exposition
In the last couple of articles in this series, we talked about the importance of beginning a story with action rather than exposition. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the same applies to the opening sentence, because it applies for essentially the same reason: It’s easier to engage with the momentum of action than the inertia of expository background.
Action could be your protagonist’s hand getting caught in the door of her pick-up truck. It could be a rocket ship blasting off into space. It could be something as simple as sipping a cup of coffee. Utilized as a first sentence, any of these actions, big or small, provides readers a clear and well-defined visual detail that presents some level of narrative. It suggests the existence of subsequent action, which compels readers to move on to the next sentence.
This is even truer if the sentence includes or implies conflict. If your protagonist’s hand is caught in the door, there’s going to be a reaction to that—immediate repercussions to be dealt with. That rocket ship may include less obvious conflict, but maybe the first sentence establishes as well that it’s going in entirely the wrong direction, or that our protagonist should be in it but isn’t. Maybe the coffee in the third example is stale. Whatever the specific detail, it establishes a situation for subsequent sentences to develop.
Exposition doesn’t do that. Sure, you can elaborate on the world, but that background on the universe or town or protagonist isn’t a situation. It’s just a sequence of facts. And facts are useful, but they don’t generate momentum, and that’s what we’re looking for.
The first sentence in a lot of ways is a message to the reader. It’s the introduction to your story, told in your voice, representing your vision. So the last thing you want to do is write exactly the same first sentence as the last twelve authors.
So one of the most important rules for how to write a great first sentence is to avoid the clichés utilized by those who have gone before you.
Clichés can manifest in a few different ways, and some are more obvious than others. For instance, if you’re writing a horror or murder mystery story, you’re probably familiar with the classic first sentence: It was a dark and stormy night. It’s become such a common expression that it’s easy to forget that it was once an original opening by an actual author: specifically, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, in his 1830 novel Paul Clifford.
He wrote it. You didn’t.
Taken out of its historical context, that sentence actually has a lot going for it—it certainly sets a tone—but we’ve heard it a million times. If you start your novel that way, the agent or publisher or reader is going to close the book right there.
But what if you start with a sound effect?
It could be brrrrrrring, like the ringing of an alarm clock. It might be the chirp chirp of an incoming text message. Sounds like these are known collectively as onomatopoeia, and a lot of authors utilize them for a first sentence that suggests immediately action or movement. The theory isn’t bad. It’s just that someone else had the same idea first, and at this point a sound effect will probably do you more harm than good.
Another very common introduction—sometimes in the opening sentence, and sometimes elsewhere in the opening paragraphs—is a description of the main character, often in a mirror. Like the sound effect device, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the concept other than its familiarity. And familiarity breeds contempt.
That’s a cliché too. Best not to open with it.
Don’t Overcomplicate It
Above I described “it was a dark and stormy night” as the opening sentence of Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford—but actually, that isn’t entirely true. The entire first sentence is as follows:
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
Presented in full, this sentence contains some of the positive characteristics about which we’ve been speaking. It certainly describes action, and the potential for conflict in the severity of the storm. Yet it’s also a long sentence composed of numerous clauses describing the setting from a variety of different angles. It hooks the reader, but also provides ample opportunity to lose them.
This sort of thing was not uncommon in classic Victorian literature—another famous example is Charles Dickens’s “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” which is but a small fraction of the first sentence of the 1859 novel A Tale of Two Cities. But in the present day this sort of elaborate first sentence is a far less palatable approach.
When figuring out how to write a great first sentence, some writers will ask too much of their hooks, describing multiple beats of action in quick succession or describing a single moment or object in inordinate detail. If that results in too complex a sentence—even a run-on sentence, or any phrasing that proves difficult to follow—then instead of hooking your reader, you might instead leave them behind.
So you want to be original. But you also want to be precise. Keep an eye out for too many commas, or too many “and”s, or any ambiguity in the writing that might muddy the waters of the action you mean to convey and the story you mean to tell.
That brings us to our last point.
Don’t Forget the Second Sentence
The goal of the first sentence is to convince readers to read the second—but the second sentence is there too. If your first sentence includes too much, write another. If the second sentence is not enough to contain the idea, build the paragraph.
In other words, the task of hooking the reader doesn’t fall upon the first sentence alone. That’s why this series is about opening pages. Learning how to write a great first sentence is important—critical, even—but only if you’re able to match it with a second great sentence, and a third great sentence, and so on are you going to keep readers engaged throughout those pages. And only then is the reader truly hooked.
What’s your favorite first-sentence hook? Let us know in the comments below!
And don’t miss the next installment in this series, where I’ll explore the factors that influence how different story types can most effectively begin, and tell you how to start your story.
Harrison Demchick came up in the world of small press publishing, working along the way on more than two dozen published novels and memoirs, several of which have been optioned for film. He is an award-winning, twice-optioned screenwriter, and the author of literary horror novel The Listeners. He’s part of The Writer’s Ally team as a developmental editor of fiction and memoir, for which he’s currently accepting new clients.