How much time do you spend crafting the first sentence of your novel? I believe it’s the most important line you will write.
The first sentence:
- draws the reader in
- sets the scene
- sets the tone
- reveals the voice
- can introduce the main character
- can introduce the story world
- can reveal one or more aspects of the character
- can hint at or directly state the main conflict or a smaller conflict
That’s a lot of material to cover in one sentence. It can sound daunting, yet great writers do it well. Consider the following opening lines:
“I’d never given much thought to how I would die – though I’d had reason enough in the last few months – but even if I had, I would not have imagined this.” – Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer
The reader is drawn in, wondering who is dying and why. We also wonder how the person is dying – it must be unusual. Is this a thriller or murder mystery? Is there a way the person can escape and survive? And what has happened in the last few months? It’s probably a young person since they’ve never thought about dying. This is our introduction to the main character, and since it’s written in first person, we know we will hear the person’s story.
“On the day King George V was crowned at Westminster abbey in London, Billy Williams went down the pit in Aberowen, South Wales.” — Fall of Giants, by Ken Follett
We are told the timeframe (early 1900s) and the part of the world in which this story takes place. One of the main characters is introduced, although we may wonder what “the pit” is. This sentence also foreshadows the entire story – it’s about how politics and world events affect the lives of everyday people. The reader is wondering what relationship Billy Williams has to King George.
“I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.” — Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi
This is three sentences, but since they are short and to the point, I am considering them to be the first line of the book. The reader is introduced to the main character, who we infer is a male. Why would a 75-year-old join the army, and where would he be allowed to do so? We know he has a story to tell.
“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling
We infer that this couple is not normal or that their world is not normal or that something abnormal is about to happen. And why are they proud to be normal? As compared to whom? This is our introduction to a “not-normal” world and to a couple who have a large impact on the main character and important roles in the book.
“Two days after the murder, listening to Brett Allen’s tale of innocence and confusion, the lawyer waivered between disbelief and wonder at its richness, so vivid that she could almost picture it as truth.” – The Final Judgment, by Richard North Patterson
This is a murder mystery. A legal mystery. We wonder if Brett is innocent or guilty. Is Brett a man or a woman and who has been murdered?
All these opening lines illustrate details of the story to come. They touch on different aspects and draw in the reader.
I can spend hours developing that first line. Or I can spend minutes. Usually, I’ve been thinking about the project for a while, and envisioning the world in which it will take place. When I sit down to write, I have a pretty good idea where I want to start and have a visual of the opening scene in my head.
That first line must be right. It doesn’t matter if my novel starts at the beginning or in the middle of an event/relationship/challenge. The first sentence starts the flow. It’s like the gates to a new world. It’s the beginning of the roadmap.
How do you want your reader to feel? Afraid, concerned, excited, curious? It must be in that first sentence. The first paragraph is also important and expands on that initial feeling.
Some writing advice says to skip writing the first sentence if you’re struggling, and come back to it later. Likewise, for the first paragraph.
I can’t. I won’t. I don’t. I do come back and tweak it, but everything flows from the first sentence.