We’ve heard countless times about the importance of the first page, the first graph, the first sentence. We know that these first words need to hook busy agents and editors quickly if our book has any chance for publication and, once published, has any chance to develop a wide readership. And though we usually have more than one sentence to catch someone’s attention, why not make that first line work as hard as possible?
Recently my daughter read the novel Going Bovine by Libba Bray. She shared the concept with me, and then I picked up the book, turned to the first page and read:
The best day of my life happened when I was five and almost died at Disney World.
“That’s a great first line,” I told her.
She shrugged. “Really?”
“So much of what you told me about the main character is in that first line. He’s a kid, he’s a cynic, and he takes little pleasure in life. You see part of his arc in that first sentence, where the story needs to go to take him to a better place, so his best memory isn’t nearly dying at Disney.”
She looked at the sentence again. “You’re right,” she said. “It’s clever.”
It’s an easy concept–even if executing the concept might take you more time and thought that you’d like: Let the first sentence offer an impactful and authentic taste of what’s to come, an amuse-bouche that teases what the meal that is your story will offer and leaves the reader hungry for more. Don’t write a strong hook that suggests one thing and fails to live up to its promise. “The sky hemorrhaged rain on the first day of the end of the world,” might be a great first line for an apocalyptic thriller but is an obvious fail as the first line of a romance novel. (Note to self: Write an apocalyptic thriller.)
After a happy hour perusing my bookshelves, I’d like to offer up these examples of first lines that I think are not only intriguing but set the tone for the book they introduce.
Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury:
It was a pleasure to burn.
Nine and A Half Weeks, Elizabeth McNeill:
The first time we were in bed together he held my hands pinned down above my head.
The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson:
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydid are supposed, by some, to dream.
The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger:
It’s hard being left behind.
Tuck Everlasting, Natalie Babbitt:
The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon:
It was 7 minutes after midnight.
The Weird Sisters, Eleanor Brown:
We came home because we were failures.
Atonement, Ian McEwan:
The play–for which Briony had designed the posters, programs and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and lined the collection box in red crêpe paper–was written by her in a two-day tempest of composition, causing her to miss a breakfast and a lunch.
The Adoration of Jenna Fox, Mary E. Pearson:
I used to be someone.
Seabiscuit, Laura Hillenbrand:
In 1938, near the end of a decade of monumental turmoil, the year’s number-one newsmaker was not Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Hitler, or Mussolini.
Milkweed, Jerry Spinelli:
I am running.
The Second Coming of Lucy Hatch, Marsha Moyer:
I was thirty-three years old when my husband walked out into the field one morning and never came back and I went in one quick leap from wife to widow.
The Good Fairies of New York, Martin Millar:
Dinnie, an overweight enemy of humanity, was the worst violinist in New York, but was practicing gamely when two cute fairies stumbled through his fourth-floor window and vomited on the carpet.
A Dirty Job, Christopher Moore:
Charlie Asher walked the earth like an ant walks on the surface of water, as if the slightest misstep might send him plummeting through the surface to be sucked to the depths below.
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in A Ship of Her Own Making, Catherynne M. Valente:
Once upon a time, a girl named September grew very tired indeed of her parents’ house, where she washed the same pink-and-yellow teacups and matching gravy boats every day, slept on the same embroidered pillow, and played with the same small and amiable dog.
A Very Long Engagement, Sébastien Japrisot:
Once upon a time, there were five French soldiers who had gone off to war, because that’s the way of the world.
Friday Mornings at Nine, Marilyn Brant:
They met on Friday mornings at nine because that was the time when Tamara’s husband left for his law firm, when Briget’s kids were safely in school and when Jennifer told everybody she had yoga.
Diamond Ruby, Joseph Wallace:
Ruby Thomas had never seen anything as beautiful as Ebbets Field, with its brick exterior and half-moon windows that reminded her of slices of jelly candy.
Once you’ve been writing for a while, you’ll learn that it’s less difficult to write a compelling first sentence than one that is both compelling and lures with the right sort of hook. Sometimes it’s not possible to write the best first sentence for your book until after the book is written. Don’t be afraid to go back and play. I rewrote the first line of The Last Will of Moira Leahy at least a dozen times before settling on the first line for that story:
I lost my twin to a harsh November nine years ago.
I’m happy with it because it says book about hurting sibling, emotional angst, probably a story about healing, which is what it is.
Treat your first sentence as an amuse-bouche, an alluring sample of what’s to come. Avoid serving your reader the equivalent of a caviar appetizer if what you’re offering in the bulk of your pages is ravioli, and vice versa. Make a promise with your first sentence, and work hard to keep it.
Is your first sentence truly serving your work-in-progress? Feel free to share your first line here, or quote some of your favorite first lines.
Photo courtesy Flickr’s mpclemens