It’s been said a million times not to judge a book by its cover. But what about judging a book by its first sentence?
I swear I rewrite my novel’s first sentence at least a hundred times before I’m finally satisfied with it. I get to the point where I know how I want my story to start, and I have a first sentence written, but it’s not quite right. I can’t get that ordinary first sentence into one that will hook the reader, set the right tone for the novel, and have publishers begging to sign a contract with me. My original first sentence is dry and drab. Totally lacking style and emotion.
Writing that first sentence can be the hardest sentence to write. Yet it’s one of the most important sentences of the whole novel. If not the most important. It’s a crucial element to any good story. It determines how the story starts and what can and will happen next. As a teacher once told me, the first sentence is a promise to the reader. That’s a hefty responsibility for one sentence.
The first sentence is sounding pretty important, huh? Yet the most important element of a first sentence is what it indicates to any reader or future publisher. If the first sentence hooks the reader or potential publisher, they may not be able to put the book down. If the first sentence doesn’t entice the reader they may be wondering when the story will get interesting, or when it will end.
So, how do you write that dreaded first sentence?
Writing Prompt: A Unique Way to Write the Dreaded First Sentence
Analyze First Sentences
When I was in college, one of my professors had us do a really interesting activity, but it totally helped me gain a better understanding of what a good first sentence requires. She had us go to the library and read and analyze first sentences.
So if you want to master the art of writing a good first sentence, go to the library and find your genre. Pull 20 (or more) books of the shelf at random. Any 20 books will do. Then read only the first sentence, and ask yourself the following questions.
- Would I keep reading? Why or why not?
- Is the sentence length engaging? Too long, too short?
- Is the word choice or word placement engaging? What makes it engaging?
- Does the first sentence reveal something important about the character or plot?
- Does the first sentence reveal information that leaves the reader wanting more?
As you answer these questions, it may be helpful to write the title of the book and the first sentence along with your answers. That will provide context for why the sentence works or does not work. It’s important to remember that just because something doesn’t work for one first sentence, doesn’t mean it won’t work for another. Try to focus on why it doesn’t work in that specific situation, and pay attention to any examples where you see the same element working well.
Revise or Write Your First Sentence
Once you’ve analyzed first sentences and taken some notes, you’ll have a plethora of good examples and bad. You’ll have a better understanding of why they work or don’t work. With those examples in hand, look at your first sentence and figure out if it applies any of the strengths or weaknesses you have from you list. Revise the first sentence to eliminate elements of the sentence that aren’t working and reinforce or add elements that will work. If you are just starting your novel, use the list to make sure you write a killer first sentence. Your publisher and readers will thank you.
How do you write a first sentence that will hook your readers?