Writers 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: