“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).
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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!