The First Sentence

Today’s blog subject I’m totally stealing from one of my favorite blogs that I read. Ava Jae wrote a great post on her Writability blog about great first lines of books.

So to continue on that thread, I decided to write about my take on the first sentence of a story.  What makes a good beginning to a novel or story anyway?

1. The first line should be attention-getting. It’s “the hook,” as folks in the writing world like to call it. A good example of an attention-getting first line can be found in the novel The Third Witch by Rebecca Reisert:

                “’Tis time to rob the dead.”

First of all, it’s a line of dialogue, so it puts the reader right into the middle of something happening. For me, I want to read on to find out who is talking, who they are talking to, and why.

Secondly, it’s a bit shocking. Grave-robbing is not generally something that’s done or even talked about in polite society. Immediately the reader is jolted awake (just in case they’d dozed off somewhere between the cover and the first page).  Not every first sentence needs to be this startling and grisly, but a hook of some sort is a good way to begin a novel.

2. The first line should involve the main character. The MC doesn’t have to be in the first sentence, or even the second or third sentence, but it’s a good idea if the beginning lines point to the MC somehow. As a reader, I, for one, want a story that’s about a character, not just a retelling of a Wikipedia entry.

Here’s a first line that introduces one of the main characters. It’s from C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, my favorite book from the Chronicles of Narnia.

                There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.

What a humorous—and attention-getting—intro to the book and the character! Right away, Lewis incites both dislike and pity for Eustace, as well as piquing curiosity as to the specifics of why he deserved such a name.

3. The first line shouldn’t be about the weather. I know I’ve read this tip in multiple places, and if I could find the blogs or remember who might have tweeted it, I’d include them here.

Weather (or descriptions of the setting or environment) is certainly important, but so easily it could become the Wikipedia entry that I mentioned earlier. Some sense of setting is good, but we all remember the classic no-no of beginning a story with “It was a dark and stormy night.”

The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett (oddly, I’m using two books about sea-going boats in my examples) has a good first line that involves a mention of the setting and weather, but also has the main character and a hook.

                He was standing on the wharf, peering down at the Delaware River while the sun beat on his shoulders.

So we know it’s a sunny day by a river. But more importantly, it involves the main character, and it leads the reader to wonder why he’s on the wharf and why it’s the Delaware River specifically, and thus read on.

And now, for a final example of a first sentence, here is the first line of the fantasy novel that I’m currently working on:

                It was barely dawn when Lyylia Niiranen hauled her suitcase out of the trunk of the taxi cab.

I’m not claiming that this is the best first line ever, especially according to the criteria I just laid out, and the other examples. But I would be interested in some feedback. Does my first line grab your attention at all? Does it make you want to give the next sentence a chance, or are you already underwhelmed? What are some of your favorite first lines?

Comments are welcome!

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12 thoughts on “The First Sentence

  1. I like this tips, thank you for giving us some ideas for books, as a hidden attempting writer I am so glad to know such a talented person like you, to be honest I haven’t found many interesting blogs yet, but yours.
    About your first sentence, can’t wait to read your novel, makes me think, now where was this girl? Is she home now, or is she visiting a new place? So it’s a very good start, it makes you ask questions and willing to continue reading.

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    • Thanks for your kind words, Steph, and for reading. 🙂 I’ll try to continue to provide entertaining and valuable content in the future!

      And I might be posting some more excerpts from my book soon, so stay tuned–you might get to see more than just the first sentence soon. 😉

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  2. Hi Grace! First off, I love your blog. Like the lady who commented before me, I haven’t found any other blogs that I really care about, but I enjoy reading yours! I also feel very lucky to know you and read your tips and thoughts on writing, it has already began to make me a better writer. I like the first line of your novel! It does draw me in, and believe me…it’s easy to bore me with books. And your first line does the exact opposite of bore me! heehee. I want to write more, but I gotta step out of the house for a few hours. I’ll write again later! I love your blog, please keep writing!!!!!!!

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    • I’ve heard that quote from “Pillars of the Earth” mentioned more than once as an illustration of a great first line, and it certainly is! I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never read that book, but I guess it should go on my to-read list. Thanks for reading, Laura! 🙂

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  3. Grace, very good info here! I love how your thought process comes through.This reminds me of the first few lines of the movie Mrs Potter which is something to the effect of : ‘I love the first few words of a story, you never know where they will take you’
    🙂

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    • Thanks for reading and commenting! 🙂 Yes, I love the first line of the Miss Potter movie (I love the whole movie, as I go on and on about in my previous blog entry, haha!) If I ever do a “best first lines of movies” post, I’ll be sure to include that movie. 😉

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  4. Pingback: Storytelling Techniques from Babylon 5: Beginning an Epic | StorytellerGirl

  5. Pingback: How to Begin a Story | StorytellerGirl

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