What Makes a Great First Sentence?

“When it comes to selling your book, the most important words you’ll ever write are those on page one.” –Jodie Rhodes, President, Jodie Rhodes Literary Agency (from Hooked by Les Edgerton).
Photo credit: soyrosa on Flickr
Most readers and writers alike can agree that the first page—and even more so, the first line—of a book carries a very heavy responsibility. I’d even go as far to say that the first line in your book is the most important sentence in the entirety of your WIP. Why?

The first line determines if the reader will go on to the second (then third and fourth, etc.) line (obvious, I know, but important).

The first line is the very first impression readers (and agents, and editors) have of your manuscript.

The first line carries the responsibility of hooking your readers into the story, or else they likely won’t move on. (No pressure).

Most of us can agree that the importance of the first sentence is undeniable. But what makes a good first sentence?

Hooked by Les Edgerton focuses on, as the title suggests, hooking your readers with your first scene and naturally, your first sentence (it’s a good read for those of you who’d like a really in-depth look at the topic beyond the little bit that I talk about here, but I digress). My favorite point in the book however, came with his theory on the two things that should belong in first sentences.

According to Edgerton, every first sentence should hint at trouble and raise a question. Taking a look at some great (in my opinion) opening lines, I have to agree with him. Let’s take a look:

“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.”—The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I’ve seen this line used time and time again as an example of a great first line and I don’t know about you guys, but I think it’s brilliant. It also holds up to Edgerton’s theory—although the trouble isn’t stated directly (it rarely is in first lines), there is certainly a sense of foreboding as our main character wakes to a cold, empty bed. The question of course is obvious—why is the other side of the bed cold? Who was she (Katniss, the protagonist) expecting to be there?

“I’ve been locked up for 264 days.”—Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi

The trouble and questions are pretty clear here—the trouble is clearly that our protagonist (Juliette) has been locked up for nearly a year. We don’t know where exactly, but by the term “locked up” we can assume it’s some kind of prison. The question of course is why? Why lock someone up for that long? What did she do to deserve imprisonment? You must read to find out.

“I see darkness.”—Saint by Ted Dekker

Trouble? Well, waking to darkness isn’t often a good thing and although we know little about the protagonist’s situation from this first sentence, we most certainly have a sense that something bad is about to happen—or perhaps something bad already has. Either way, we want to know why our main character only sees darkness (the question), so we have to read on to find out.

“There is one mirror in my house.”—Divergent by Veronica Roth

The trouble here is a little more subtle than in the last two examples. We don’t know for sure from the first sentence that anything bad is going to happen, but just the fact that we have to ask why our main character only has one mirror in her house (and why, as we quickly find out, the mirror is hidden) gives us a sense that something isn’t quite right.

“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” –Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

How could I go through this kind of post without including Harry Potter? Obviously, I couldn’t.

In all seriousness, this is the kind of sentence that uses a sort of reverse-psychology. Just the fact that Mr. and Mrs. Dursley feel the need to say that they’re perfectly normal indicates that they probably aren’t (which foreshadows trouble) and also leads the reader to ask why they feel it’s important everyone know that they’re normal. Do people think they’re strange? If so, why? We must read on to find the answer.


A sense of foreboding and raising questions can go a long way to grab your readers’ attention right from the first line—are you using this technique in your writing?

What are your favorite first lines? Do they create a sense a trouble and raise questions? I’d love to hear them! 

48 comments:

Max said...

A short one.

I seriously hate reading first sentences that run on for three lines.

Ava Jae said...

True! I have a tendency to like short sentences as well (as you could probably guess by my choice of first sentences to share in the post). 

Daphne Gray-Grant said...

I agree that first sentences are crucial but, really, EVERY sentence should raise questions in the reader's mind. That's what will keep them reading til the end!!

Ava Jae said...

Ooo, that's a fantastic point--and completely true! 

Daniel Swensen said...

Why did I know I'd see Shatter Me mentioned? Awesome.

My winning formula for first sentences: first, describe a night. Now, make it dark and stormy. You're welcome!

Ava Jae said...

lol that's a brilliant formula--but only if these dark and stormy nights are accompanied by rolling thunder and claps of lightning at dramatic moments. :)

Daniel Swensen said...

Yes, like punctuation. "BASTARD!" (thunderclap)

It's a formula that totally cannot go wrong ever. 

Ava Jae said...

Exactly like that! Then all you need is a bald, mustache-twirling villain and you're all set for a best-seller. 

J. A. Bennett said...

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Best first line ever, so simple yet so poignant. (BTW, I have a new blog!)

Ava Jae said...

Ah yes, that one is often quoted as well. And I've seen your new blog! I'm already a follower. :)

Daniel Swensen said...

P.S. Ava, I felt I needed to acknowledge your awesomeness, so... http://surlymuse.com/its-versatile-its-a-blogger-its-a-versatile-blogger-award/

Ava Jae said...

That was very awesome of you. Thank you! :)

Vicki Orians said...

Oh, my, I loved this post. It is so true that so many of my favorite books have a catching first line; I just never thought about it. Now I better make sure my book's first line isn't boring! :)

Ava Jae said...

You certainly can't go wrong by paying extra special attention to the beginning of your WIP. :)

Rhiannon Paille said...

Ahhh love the Harry Potter reference! Hmm, there was Maggie Stiefvater's Shiver that pulled me in. *goes off to find the line* 

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

Lisa said...

Interesting, I always leave the best for last, I'll have to re-think that strategy. Thanks!

Wendy said...

Janice Hardy's books have great first lines! The Shifter: Stealing eggs is a lot harder than stealing the whole chicken. (I think, can't remember exact wording) Blue Fire: Responsibility is overrated.

James Garcia Jr. said...

Hi, Ava. How's it going?
Thanks for the post. As fate would have it, I just began a new novel. I'm going to have to take a look at the opening and put your advice to test it...
After thinking about it for a moment, Clive Barker's wonderful fable, The Thief of Always sprang to mind. It begins: "The Great gray beast February had eaten Harvey Swick alive." For those who have been scared off by Barker, read this incredible story. I couldn't recommend it any higher.

-Jimmy 

Ava Jae said...

Truth be told, I'd completely forgotten how Harry Potter started until I looked it up again. I'm glad I did--it's a fantastic first line. 

Ah yes, Shiver. That first line certainly does raise some interesting questions. 

Ava Jae said...

You're very welcome! I wish you the best with your writing!

Ava Jae said...

Hi James! 

Let me know how it works for your opening. I know I applied it to mine and I think it's starting to improve. 

That is a really fantastic first line--love the imagery. I've never heard of Clive Barker or The Thief of Always, but after sharing that first line, I may have to check it out. :)

JFeijten said...

I have an exam tomorrow. This first sentence hints at trouble if I spend my precious time reading blogposts. It also raises a question: why is he online, reacting to blog entries, then?
Well, because I think it's brilliant and reacting is much more fun than studying xD 

First of all, this entry made me realise I've never paid attention to my first sentences. But now I see how important it is. After I've read this, I checked my own 'starters' and they're poor. Very poor. I've got something to work on now, I guess ^^ The best ones I could find raise a question, but they don't really hint at trouble:

"Predicting the future is one of the hardest jobs on earth""Yvar Morghal was delighted"

After checking my own stuff, I went to my bookcase and picked some random books up. Now, there are some good ones, but with some others - although popular books - I can't see the theory you presented.

Room by Emma Donoghue"Today I'm five."

Number Ten by Sue Townsend"Edward Clare was cleaning his teeth in the cavernous bathroom in Number Five Ann Street, Edinburgh."

Not very gripping, are they? Better, I found the following:

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein“Gestures are all that I have"

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett"The small boys came early to the hanging."

They both indicate a possible trouble and raise a question. Good job! I can see why you would want to go on in these books. But if we’re talking about gripping and shocking the reader straight away, this one stand out:
Don’t Breathe A Word by Jennifer McMahon“Hotter than hot, no air-conditioning, sweat pouring down in rivers, the Magic Fingers motel bed vibrating beneath her, Mr. Ice Cream doing his thing above.”
It’s a bit longer, but I think it’s perfect. From all the books I’ve mentioned, The Art of Racing in the Rain was the only one I had already read. After this little test, I can’t wait to start in McMahon’s novel.

JFeijten said...

Another comment, because that other one was getting quite long ^^

I saw that some sentences you wrote (Like the one from The Hunger Games) and my own example from Room are written in the present tense.

Maybe it's an idea to write a blog entry on the choice between present tense and past tense. I don't see why anyone would write in the present tense. I always write in the past. The present tense feels strange. Maybe that I'll understand it after reading The Hunger Games.

Ava Jae said...

That is a fantastic idea--bettered by the fact that I do indeed write in present tense. Thank you! I think I now know what tomorrow's post will be about. :)

Ava Jae said...

You mean there are novels in your bookshelf that you haven't read? *stare* 

All kidding aside, I really like your examples and I have to agree that the ones that indicate both possible trouble and raise questions are more gripping than those that don't. I especially like the one from The Pillars of the Earth, I think that's a really interesting (and rather disturbing) first line. 

Let me know what you think about Don't Breathe a Word. I haven't read it, but I'm always on the lookout for good books. :)

Susan Sipal said...

Great examples and analysis, Ava. I need to go back and relook at my first line on my WIP. I think it's strong, but I'd like to analyze it with your suggestions above.  And I love Jeremy's suggestion for you to do a post on present vs past tenses!

Ava Jae said...

So glad you enjoyed the post and were able to apply it. :) 

I too thought Jeremy's suggestion was sheer brilliance, and thusly will be posting the first of two posts tomorrow. 

rifae said...

So true... It's my way of examining a book whether it's good or bad.

Lisa Gail Green said...

Brilliant!!! I love it. :D 

Ava Jae said...

Thank you Lisa! So glad you enjoyed the post! :)

Janet Smart said...

I so agree. Good post. I've written a manuscript where I have changed the beginning at least three times. I think I nailed it with the last change. I grab them with the first line and have them wondering about why the main character is thinking what she is thinking.

Ava Jae said...

Getting the beginning down is incredibly important--and certainly worth rewriting as many times as you need to get it right. Even the smallest changes can make all the difference!

Jo-Anne Teal said...

Thank you for this post. I knew that first lines were important but there has been a big a difference for me between recognizing a great opener and writing a great opener. Your post will help me with the writing part!

Oh, my favourite opener: " I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his
voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even
because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is
the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany. " by John Irving.

Ava Jae said...

So glad I could help! One of the best ways to learn how to improve your writing is by analyzing what others have done before us. :) 

Interesting first line! I hadn't heard that one before. Thanks for sharing it! 

Anne-Marie Clark said...

"Tom!"No answer.
"Tom!"
No answer.
"What's gone with that boy, I wonder? You Tom!"
No answer.

Ava Jae said...

Hmm, haven't heard that one. What's it from?

Anne-Marie Clark said...

Those are the first lines to Twain's novel Tom Sawyer.

Ava Jae said...

Ah, of course! I haven't read that one in a long time. :)

John Chapman said...

Great first lines? How about these quoted from memory:

'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.' - Charles Dickens in A tale of two cities
'No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched...' (Wow! What a LONG first sentence.) H.G. Wells in War of the Worlds.
'I've never given much thought to how I would die' - Preface of Stephanie Meyer's Twilight

Ava Jae said...

Those are great examples! Say what you will about Twilight, but Meyers definitely knew how to hook quite a few readers in, and that first sentence certainly helped.

rachelcotterill said...

Those are some great examples, in very different ways :)

Ava Jae said...

Thank you! I thought so, too. :)

Davidson said...

My favorite has got to be the opening to Stephen King's The Dark Tower.
"The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed."

Ava Jae said...

Great example! I can certainly see the appeal, although out of curiosity, what do you think draws you to that particular opening so much?

Lynne Constantine said...

Great info. Just tweeted to your blog

Ava Jae said...

Thank you so much, Lynne! I really appreciate it!

Henry said...

"There's no lake at Camp Green Lake."


-Holes

Ava Jae said...

Holes! Yes, I agree—great first line. Thanks, Henry!

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