First sentences carry an enormous amount of responsibility on their shoulders, and writers need to ensure they can bear the weight.
Make every word count.
Think of the first sentence as the “host” of the story. The reader sits down. Eager hands open up the book to the first page. The first sentence greets the reader, setting the tone and voice of the story they’re about to experience. The writer must convince the reader to step over the threshold into the story. Remember, readers want instant gratification. The minute the first sentence makes them wait for something interesting or thought provoking, they get bored.
A first sentence, and a good host, balances between an informative and alluring personality.
The first sentence invites a reader in and offers information in order to anchor them in the story. It should grab the reader's attention by engaging their curiosity. A reader supplied with the right questions will continue to read in search for answers.
Most first sentences fall under two categories: the set up or the hook.
When a sentence takes on the role of “set up”, the reader is provided with details about the story. These details lay down the foundation the story will build upon, e.g., setting, characters or conflict.
Details about the setting familiarize the reader with the time and location, whether it’s outer space in 2065 or Alabama in 1963. The first sentence gives the reader a quick glimpse of the story world, leaving them curious about the writer’s motive for choosing this specific time and location. The reader now wants to know what will happen here.
When the reader cares about the characters, they’re more likely to continue reading. So, why not let the first sentence provide insight into the character. Whether the reader finds the character relatable or intriguing, they will read on to uncover what happens to this person.
Another approach to lay down the foundation gives the reader a peek at the story about to unfold. It garners attention and anchors the reader. Now, the reader is free to question and discover the characters involved and location the plot will take place in.
A “hook” first sentence takes on the responsibility of dazzling the reader long enough to keep reading. The first sentence can shock the reader, present an absurdity or provide an abstract thought or situation. This approach prompts the reader to say, “What?” Their disbelief compelles them to read further to find out what it means or how it fits in the story.
Both techniques should deliver intrigue. A successful first sentence will coax the reader to turn pages in hopes of uncovering an explanation and/or answer to the questions set before them.
Which techniques have you been successful with in your writing?
The following websites provide examples of great first lines and more advice: