Just about every writer dreams of writing words that will have a lasting effect on civilization. Wouldn’t it be awesome if at least one line from each of your books tended to stay in people's minds?
An avalanche on a snow covered mountain can be triggered by something as quiet as a person’s voice. A fierce thunderstorm starts with the first drop of rain. A bestseller begins with the very first sentence that entrances the reader and draws him in so that he cannot put the book down. Resist the temptation to make the opening line too complex; don’t make it the most dramatic part of your story. Your reader will only be disappointed if the story goes downhill after a riveting beginning. You goal is to hook the reader and keep him from being dissatisfied with the rest of the story.
What are some examples of what I consider to be great first sentences?
From On Maggie’s Watch, by Ann Wertz Garvin, comes this unusual opening line. “Wash your hands and say your prayers, ‘cause Jesus and germs are everywhere!” When I picked up this book to read it, I wasn’t sure whether or not I would enjoy it. Women’s fiction is not a genre I normally choose to read, but the opening sentence put a hook in my jaw and drew me immediately into the story. I still had no idea what the story was about, I just knew I wanted to read further.
In The Creation of Eve, by Lynn Cullen, the opening line is “In the time it takes to pluck a hen, I have ruined myself.” That statement immediately raises several questions that ensured I wanted to read further. Who is speaking? What did this person do to ruin his or her life? Is his or her life actually ruined because of what has been done? I think this may be my favorite opening line of all that I have ever read.
“A birdcage might be gilded, but it is still a cage.” This is the first sentence from Reign of Madness, which was also written by Lynn Cullen. Is someone being held against their will? Who? Why? Since this historical fiction book is based on events that actually happened, it peaked my curiosity even more.
Don't worry, though, the first line of the book doesn't necessarily have to promise intrigue, romance, or mystery. I don't even always notice the first sentence. You can have a spectacular first sentence, but if the writing that follows it sucks, then you're out of luck. I won't read your book and I doubt anyone else will either.
Your novel can be a success even if you can't come up with a sentence that is guaranteed to immediately suck the reader into the story. Your first line can also introduce a main character or set the scene.
What are some examples of these types of opening sentences?
In Game – Faint Signals, by Alice N. York, we are introduced to the main character in the very first sentence - “Before Alex entered the PsoraCom building through the automatic double doors, she turned once more to Sandro.” This sentence made me want to know who Alex and Sandro were. It also peaked my curiosity about what PsoraCom was and what it had to do with this story.
From The Immortal Game: Rise of the Water Bearer by Richard Petracca, we have an opening sentence that sets the scene - "In the lower part of London on a gray and cold morning, a dark-haired man wearing a long ponytail sat in a coffee shop and fingered the handle of a black briefcase as he sipped his coffee." I am right now in the process of reading this book, which has not yet been published, but definitely does not disappoint. What is happening on this cold, gray morning in London? Is life continuing on as normal? Or is something traumatic about to happen, something that will forever alter life as we know it? And why is this man fingering the handle of a black briefcase? The name of the book even makes one wonder. Who exactly is the Water Bearer? This paranormal thriller, set in modern times, takes one on a journey to see a young boy fulfill his destiny.
From Pursuit of Happiness by Sheldon Greene comes this first sentence that sets the scene. “Amelia Sayre sat at the spinet gazing out the door across the palms towards the horizon. Hmm. This one raises the question, what is she looking at? Is something going on out there that is causing her to look that direction? This irresistible story of romance and suspense takes a deeper look at the war that ensured this nation's freedom from Great Britain.
Whether you begin your book with a sentence that reaches out and grabs your reader and won't let go, with a sentence that sets the scene, or with a sentence that introduces one or more characters, be sure that the rest of your book isn't a letdown.