Two Components of a Great Opening Sentence

FirstSentenceCartoonWriters put a lot of pressure on themselves regarding the first line of a story. I don’t know if it was always this way, but in our fast-paced world there is this expectation that writers must hook readers with just one sentence. Otherwise, they will pick up the next book on the shelf!

Whether this is true or not, a great first line certainly doesn’t hurt. I’ve been thinking a lot about first lines and how they set the scene for the whole story. In fact, I wrote two completely separate openings for my novel because I started with different sentences. For me, that’s how influential that first line can be. It has the power to shape everything.

So what makes a great opening sentence? I think it comes down to these two things…

#1 – It poses a question.

Give readers a question they want to know the answer to, and they will keep reading. It’s as simple as that.

Here are some examples from books on my shelf.

“There is no lake on Camp Green Lake.” HOLES by Louis Sacher

Why name it that if there’s no lake? Was there a lake? What happened to it?

 

“By the time Jazz got to the field outside town, yellow police tape was everywhere, strung from stake to stake in a sort of drunken, off-kilter hexagon.” I HUNT KILLERS by Barry Lyga

We have a crime scene, but what happened there?

 

“It is my first morning of high school. I have seven new notebooks, a skirt I hate, and a stomachache.” SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson

Why does the heroine have a stomachache?

 

“My mother thinks I’m dead.” LEGEND by Marie Lu

Why? What happened to make her think the hero is dead?

Okay, no big deal, right? It’s easy to write a sentence that makes the reader wonder about something. I came up with a few of those doozies for my WIP… and ended up scrapping them all. Why? Because they didn’t have the second component.

#2 – It encapsulates the tone and theme of the story.

Yeah, that is the hard one. And on the first draft, you might not even want to worry about this. Especially if you are more pantser than plotter, you won’t quite know what those things are yet. But after you do know those things (or if you’re a plotter and already know them), a first line that sets the tone and thematically expresses the plot is gold.

How do the above examples do that?

HOLES – This sentence sets the tone for a book that is indeed full of contradictions and weird stuff that doesn’t seem to make sense, and suggests a plot where nothing and nobody is what they seem to be.

I HUNT KILLERS – The tone of this novel is crime thriller, and we expect the hero will struggle to make sense (i.e. the hexagon) of the messy crimes (i.e. drunken, off-kilter).

SPEAK – The sentence sets up a novel about an ordinary teenager burdened by something that is literally giving her a stomachache. Note that this detail, in another book, could have been minor and unimportant. In SPEAK, however, it’s not. That’s why it’s in the first line.

LEGEND – I feel danger in this sentence, and for the whole story the hero’s life quite literally is on the line.

Why is setting the tone and theme important to the reader? To be honest, I don’t know that it is, at least not consciously. But just because the reader doesn’t recognize it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect them. As I’m wont to do, let’s use film as an example. An opening sentence is like an opening shot in a movie – the good ones encapsulate tone and theme, and the not-so-good ones are forgettable.

That’s the bottom line – you don’t want your opening sentence to be forgettable. I don’t mean that readers need to be able to quote it word for word, just that tone and theme tend to stick in a reader’s subconscious and make them ponder the sentence’s intriguing insinuations, and that entices them to read the entire book.

What are your favourite first lines? Why did you keep reading?

 

For more on THEME, check out these posts:

Does Your Novel Have a Theme with a Capital “T”?

The Controlling Idea – Not Your English Teacher’s Theme

 

Author: Heather Jackson

Heather is a freelance screenwriter, game writer, and novelist based in Toronto. For more, visit her website at heatherjacksonwrites.com or follow her on Twitter @HeatherJacksonW

28 thoughts on “Two Components of a Great Opening Sentence”

  1. I like a “grabber” opening to a story or chapter and a cliffhanger ending to chapters. Of course, that’s not always possible or even desirable. Most new authors bury the really interesting stuff a few paragraphs in, and they should usually end their chapter a few paragraph before they actually end it.

    I try to do that in my stories, but it’s so much easier to do on OTHER people’s stories, to find the place to amazing start, or to find the best place the end and have that amazing, I have to keep reading, cliffhanger. But like everything else, practice makes perfect. If you try to do it in every chapter of your next book, you’ll have a knack for it by the time you’re done.

    As for opening lines in books, I start how I need to start and promise myself I’ll go back when I’m finished with the whole story, so I have less pressure while writing and more pressure while editing. That lets me passive think about ways to improve it as I do other things. Like mowing the lawn. Or running on the treadmill. I get my best lines right as I’m about to step onto the treadmill, so I keep writing materials there.

    That’s when my ideas come, as a way to avoid running. But it’s given me some great chapter openings!

  2. It never occurred to me to think of first line in terms of what the book is about, like you did at the end. You’ve given me a lot to think about. This was a great article. I can’t believe it’s so short and made me think so hard. Sorcery!

    Since I’m a raging fan of Ilona Andrews Kate Daniels series, and a sucker for self-analysis, I went to check the first line of Magic Bites, a book that grabbed me from the get-go.

    “I sat at a table in my shadowy kitchen, staring down at a bottle of Boone’s Farm Hard Lemonade, when a magic fluctuation hit.”

    It lands hard on the “it poses a question” category. What the hell is a magic fluctuation?

    I’d like to add that an opening line with details specific to a character (Boone’s Farm Hard Lemonade) tend to grab me more. I never forgot what Kate Daniels was drinking at the beginning of Magic Bites, I’d forgotten it was in the first line, though, but the mental image never left me.

    1. That’s a great example, Nicole. It’s always interesting to hear people’s personal preferences for first lines.

      Glad you found the post helpful! Perhaps that’s my superpower – packing a punch in few words. 🙂

  3. I usually give a book the first page to really hook me, but I know I personally like short, pithy sentences for the start, that get explained within the next paragraph. 🙂

  4. Wonderful post! First lines can be overwhelming to try to write, but it’s more important to just get going and then return to polish it up, I think.

    1. A lot of people do it that way, and that’s good advice. I’m weird, though. I need my first line to do these two things or I can’t get started. Not that it can’t change later on, but I can never start without a thematically significant opening sentence. Maybe I’d write faster if I could! 😉

  5. While it’s become almost a cliché of “great openers”, I still go back to the start of 1984:
    “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

    The first half of the sentence lulls you in – it’s almost “It was a dark and stormy night” conventional. But then the second half of the sentence gives the kick in the teeth, making you do a mental double-take. “Striking, what?”

    As with most of Orwell’s writing: so simple, but so brilliant.

    Great post!

  6. I have been following this blog for a quite long time, but never left a comment…
    There is always a first time, for good or bad! …
    Anyway … I just thought of the beginning of Garcia Marquez’s “One hundred Years of Solitude”, which is stunning… Here you can check out a thorough list and make your choice/s 100 Best First Lines from Novels http://americanbookreview.org/100bestlines.asp.
    Thanks for sharing and best wishes. Aquileana 😀

  7. I’ve pondered this many times myself. Who hasn’t, right? The best first line, the one that sticks with me always, is from Larry Brooks’ Bait and Switch. “All things considered, it was a great night to die.” Bam! I’m in 100%. Of course, they are many others I love too, but this one really worked for me.

  8. I kind of wonder if killer opening lines is more important when submitting to a publisher or agent and less for a reader. I’ve never picked up a book and had the first two sentences make me put it down. I’ve read books that the first page was blah to me, but I kept going because it was the story I wanted to read. I’m sure for some readers it is important and would affect if they keep reading. But with a publisher and agent is it super important because they have so many submissions and you have to hook them ASAP if you want them to take your story.

    1. That’s very true. First lines are probably much more important to agents and publishers. For readers, I think this mainly applies if you are browsing in a bookstore, though sadly that habit is becoming a thing of the past.

      1. I think a great first line is more important for readers. I was at a bookstore recently, and when I picked up a book it was because of the “eye-catching” cover, and then I skimmed the back jacket copy. Next, I flipped to the front page. The first line was awesome and so was the first paragraph, so I bought the book. While we were there, my daughter and I had fun opening up various novels and reading the first sentence out loud. For me personally, if the first page has a great “hook” I will buy the book 9 out of 10 times.

        And I alway, always read Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature to inspect the first sentence and page of any novel before I buy it. Or I will try to hunt down an excerpt to read online before I buy. I purchase 99% of my books from Amazon, and like I said, I read the first few pages.

        Personally, I spend more time revising the first line than any other sentence in my manuscripts. I like my opening lines to have a compelling “hook” that should naturally make the reader want to know more. They all have to “pop”!

        Writing a great beginning can be complicated and frustrating. Not to mention all the “so-called” rules a writer must follow. First, you’ll need to “hook” the reader from page one and reel them into your narrative. Second, you must have an original and compelling opening sentence. And third, you must lure your reader into the storyline so quickly and cleverly that they are already on page twenty by the time before they realize it. 😉

  9. Great post!
    I’ve been slaving on my first chapter for months (no kidding) and I’ve changed my opeining line… I don’t know how many times.

    Yes, it’s true, readers won’t know what you’re putting in that line, most of the time, but you know, and what you know will filter through to the read, I believe. That’s the power of a good opening line.
    More than shock. I see a lot of opening lines that ‘are trying too hard’ an you can tell it. These openings sure are attention-catching, but I don’t really think they are effective as they could be.

    1. I whole-heartedly agree! Shock opening lines are only effective if they are more than cheap attention-getters.

      I like the way you worded this: “…what you know will filter through to the reader.” So much work goes into writing, and a lot of it connects with the reader on a subconscious level. And we’re all striving to make that connection!

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