I remember being taught, in English class in school, that a good story should grab the reader’s attention right from the first page. In those first few hundred words you should introduce characters, create interest and mystery and raise questions in the reader’s mind – questions that they will want to find out the answers to.
But, how much better is it to do these things with the very first sentence? Write your opening sentence like it is a gunshot – blam! - and you’ll have your reader’s attention immediately. Make it powerful enough and as the smoke of the gun clears the reader will read on with the shot still ringing in their ears. They are hooked before they even know it. I’m not saying that something explosive or exciting should happen right in the first sentence, but it should have some sort of effect on a reader. You want their attention, and you want it now.
A good first line should be as good as your favourite film quote. Something that even when taken out of context has power – the power to make someone laugh or think or gasp or grimace. The best opening lines, when read in the bookstore, can make or break the sale of a book arguably even more than its blurb. I may not judge a book by its cover, but I often judge it on the first sentence.
So, how can we write brilliant opening lines? First off, grab a couple of your favourite books from your own shelves and read their first sentences. You may not have really thought about these sentences in isolation like this, but read them carefully and think about what makes them so effective. You will probably find that the best ones…
- Are short and snappy
- Immediately set the tone of the story
- Quickly raise questions that you want answered
- Hit you right between the eyes, often by being surprising or shocking
Keep it simple.
As you will see, one of the most important things for writing a great opening sentence is to keep it short and simple. This is good advice for all writing; there are many posts on blogs out there advocating the use of short sentences and clear writing, but for the first sentence it is especially important. (One exception to this rule is a personal favourite, the opening sentence to Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, which runs way over 100 words and comprises an entire paragraph!) But, in the main, short and simple is the way to go…
“This is what happened.”
The Mist - Stephen King
It doesn’t get much simpler than this. This, the opening sentence to The Mist, is straight out of the Hemingway school of writing. In just four bold words, King manages to get the reader to ask the ultimate question – “WHAT has happened?” Immediately you just have to know, you must find out. He doesn’t even need to hint at the horrors to come, but you just know something bad has happened. Okay, alright… because we know what Stephen King is like we can probably guess that some horrific stuff is going to happen, but that doesn’t stop this from being a good example of how brave, simple writing can hook a reader right from the very start.
Another great way that opening sentences can grab the reader is by including a character. Don’t wait to introduce your characters, especially if they are out of the ordinary.
“The Iron Man came to the top of the cliff.”
The Iron Man - Ted Hughes
This is the opening to Hughes’ The Iron Man, the children’s story on which the fantastic film The Iron Giant is based. By introducing a character in the opening sentence (it doesn’t even have to be your main character, they could be dead come page two…) you can really suck the reader into the story, away from their reality. Give your character an interesting name or profession and the reader will be putty in your hands immediately. Something like (and I’m making this one up as I write…) – “The clown looked back at the enormous footprints he had left in the snow.” Now, tell me, who wouldn’t want to read on to find out what a clown, in full costume, is doing walking about in deep snow?! A goofy example, but I hope it illustrates my point.
“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas - Hunter S. Thompson
Leave it to Hunter to know how to hit the reader right between the eyes. I love this opening sentence (also used as the opening line of the film version – delivered brilliantly by Johnny Depp) as it is a great example of how being shocking can work wonders. Thompson introduces drugs (copious amounts, as we soon find out) at the very beginning of his novel, and you instantly know you’re in for a wild, crazy ride.
Set the Tone.
“Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.”
The Stranger - Albert Camus
Okay, so this is the first two sentences. The first (again, like that from The Mist, it’s very short) is absolutely brilliant, but I think the second sentence really makes it. We are instantly confronted with the death of this man’s mother, but we are shocked and intrigued by his apparent lack of remorse or grief. The distant, apathetic tone of the entire story (and of its main character and narrator) is set in the reader’s mind within these first few words. In fact, these sentences are probably the quickest and most-thorough character exposition I have ever read in a story.
Finally, for my own favourite opening sentence ever, back to Mr King.
“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger
So many questions from one simple sentence! Not one but two characters are introduced within the first twelve words of the story, and we are even given an idea of the relationship between them – the very deliberate use of the word “fled” shows that the second man here is being chased. The air of mystery and intrigue generated from these words is amazing, something to do with the isolated setting and the fact that neither of these characters are given proper names.
As we can see from these examples, the opening sentence of your writing is very important and is something to be given some serious thought and work. Getting it right is arguably more important even than your title. So be shocking, be bold, be brave, be clear. Write a killer opening sentence and your reader will have no other option but to keep reading. There should be blood in that first line, and some sweat and tears too. Or at least the smell of them. The reader will have no choice but to follow the scent.
Please share your favourite opening sentences (and why you like them!) in the comments section below.