Now that I said it, I will tell you that this is a statement I personally do not agree with.
Some writers, publishers, and agents will argue that if you don’t hook the reader in the first sentence then you failed. I’ve heard variations of this same idea multiple times.
But what kind of a first sentence does it take to have that instant hook? And, is it even possible?
Advice will run between keeping it short and simple to using a complex sentence including multiple ways to draw the reader in with those few first words.
Set stage and tone, time and place, conflict, theme, foreshadow, tell a truth, surprise the reader, shock them, promise a reward, don’t start with a question, relate to the reader, do not start with dialogue, be funny or absurd, raise a question, start with an action, incite an emotional reaction, connect the reader with the main character, it must be vivid, offer a tease, introduce your main character, get them fascinated with the scene, sum up the novel.
This is only a sampling of the advice you might see on how to write the perfect first sentence. None of it is either wrong or right. It’s also probably impossible for you to pack all of that into a single sentence without making it incredibly long and unwieldy.
As with everything about writing and every other form of art what is good, or as seems to be demanded of us the perfect reader trap, is subjective to the individual’s taste. And each individual’s tastes are determined by too many factors to count, including their personal tastes and preferences, culture, experiences, and so much more.
So who is to say what is the perfect opening sentence?
Best First Lines from Published Novels
Consider this list: “100 Best First Lines from Novels” by American Book Review. How many of these lines made the list simply because of who the author is or because the book became a classic? How many of these lines would even be considered for this list if they had been published today by a less famous author?
Given the single first sentence and no other reference, which first sentence from this list would you have been hooked on, driven to read on? Of course, many of these lines are dated and were probably red hot in their day. But it is also too easy to look back and say that first line must have been perfect because the book was a classic. For me, more than a few of these invoke a response of “meh”. So they are certainly someone’s perfect first line, but not mine.
So ask yourself this: if you take the top 100 current worldwide bestsellers and poll a group on a list of only that first sentence with no reference to the author or what book it was taken from, how many would be voted as perfect first lines? How many would instantly hook the reader, driving him or her helplessly forward to read the rest of the book?
The publishing world is full of books of every type. Those whose perfect first line went on to set the tone for a fantastic piece of writing, those that fall flat into abysmal blandness after a great opening line, those whose opening line was only the opening to something that draws you in and hooks you as you continue, those that flop on every level, and everything in between.
Let’s face it; it takes much more than an epic first line to make a story a success. And there are very few readers who would stop at the first line and make a judgment without reading further.
The internet is full of advice on how to write that perfect first sentence that Snaps, pops, and otherwise grabs your reader’s attention and refuses to let go. Even WikiHow gets in on the action. But as you research how to make that first line that promises to make your story and career soar to unimaginable heights, you will also quickly learn that this advice is neither absolute nor universal.
Here are just a few articles on writing the first line:
While some people tell you that first line is all important, others will argue that it is not the first sentence that is the most important; that the first sentence is not the do or die of your story and writing and publishing career.
Like this writer, Chuck Sambuchino, who says this of the often pushed list of alleged literary first line masterpieces, “So here’s the deal, or my theory of the deal: These authors didn’t worry about the opening sentence; they just started telling their stories. There has to be a beginning. That beginning might indicate time and place, might introduce a character. Might reveal a thought. Present a fact. Drop in on some event or action in the middle. Whatever starts the telling makes the first sentence. Just as whatever concludes the story will make the last.”
So, how do you write that perfect first sentence?
The best advice I can give you is to just jump in and write the first sentence. Don’t even think of it as the first sentence. Just sit down, think about where your story starts, and start writing. But don’t stop there. Keep going and write the next sentence and the next. Keep the momentum going. Do not let yourself get bogged down and lose the feeling of the narrative worrying over whether or not that first sentence snaps. If you feel the flow, just keep going and worry about perfection later.
Now put it aside. Let your mind take a break before you go back to it.
Read it and ask yourself, “Would I read this?” Does the first sentence do justice to the rest of that first paragraph? Does that first paragraph make you want to read the next? Do you feel compelled to turn the page when you reach the bottom? Do you yearn to learn what happens next when that chapter ends? Do you feel bored or confused anywhere?
Your first sentence sets the stage for the paragraph. And the first paragraph draws the reader into the chapter. But it takes so much more than one person’s opinion of whether or not your first sentence is perfect. It takes more than the opinions of your writer’s group, your mentor, or even your publisher.
Why? Because the truth of it is that there is no such thing a perfect first sentence. I would compare it to the search for the ever-elusive perfect man or the perfect woman. Every individual’s needs and ideas for what makes that ‘perfect’ are different and ever changing.
From first sentences that invoke emotion to those that set place, time, and mood, the first sentence is only the beginning of something much deeper. What makes it right depends on what your story needs it to be. What makes it right is not obsessing over whether or not that first sentence is perfect enough, but rather how it works as a foundation for that first paragraph and the story as a whole.
What makes it perfect is making it feel perfectly natural.
Research what others recommend, take advice from different sources, and most importantly, know that every story is different and that means that what works for each story is different. Every piece of advice is exactly that, it is that individual’s personal opinion, their recommendation and offered guidance.
Now go out there and write the first sentence that is perfect for your story.