Every part of the story is important, but nothing is as crucial to captivating the reader as the opening sentence.
Yet many writers overlook the role of the first sentence, starting their novels (short stories, articles) with a cliché, a long boring sentence or even something artificially sensational for the “shock value”.
Wouldn’t you rather have a great first sentence? It may sound like a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be. All you need is a few simple guidelines to steer you in the right direction, and some brilliant examples to give you the inspiration. You’ll be scribbling captivating opening sentences in no time.
Shall we begin?
As part of my never-ending quest to become a better writer I took a class called “The Art of Fiction”. One of the home assignments was to write an enthralling first sentence. It could be anything – from introducing a character to describing a feeling – as long as it made people want to read on. The sentences are then to be read for an in-class critique.
My first sentence was:
“I always remind people that Jesus Christ is our lord and savior.”
I wrote it after I saw a truck with the phrase “Jesus Christ is not a swear word” printed on it in huge letters, so I imagined a guy who takes this message seriously. Some born-again Californian bum with a sun-scorched face and a spark of insanity in clear blue eyes. Someone who truly believes, and who’s been to hell and back.
Not to brag, but that sentence evoked the most personal reactions. People liked the use of an authoritative “I” and a sense of distance between author and character who they envisioned as a sheltered, scary, self-righteous evangelical nut. My favorite feedback was that it “makes you scared to read on,” and that the story “could go anywhere”. In fact, let’s make that one the first first sentence guideline:
- Mystify your reader. Make the first sentence intriguing or somewhat open-ended. Think of it as your mini masterpiece complete in itself, a tantalizing first taste of your literary treat.
- Don’t use deception to “lure” your reader. Like false advertisement, a false premise is disappointing and maddening. The first sentence should hint on what your story’s going to be about without giving it all away.
- Be bold. Get to the point. Avoid any “fluff” in your opening line. Make sure it includes some essential information that establishes the parameters of your story.
- Be creative. Surprise. Rattle. Catch off guard. As Graham Greene had said, a story’s beginning or ending is arbitrary. It can begin anywhere because it’s just “that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.”
- Use humor. There’s nothing better than humor to break the ice, whether it’s an opening line of a speech or the first sentence of a book.
(Disclaimer: These are guidelines; not hard rules. Sometimes opening sentences that shouldn’t work in theory do work in a paradoxical way, or to establish a character’s voice or the tone of the story.)
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” — Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877)
This is a classic example you will find in any anthology listing the best first lines. Making a deep philosophical statement right off the bat is a very powerful way to begin your story.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” — Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)
Another classic. Jane Austen is showing off her wit in this opening line, demonstrating how a little humor can go a long way.
“Early one evening, during an exceptional heat wave in the beginning of July, a young man walked out into the street from the closetlike room he rented on Stoliarny Place.” — Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment (1866)
I like that first sentence because it takes you right into the heart of the action. Immediately you feel that the young man is up to no good, that the heat and the closet-size room may be affecting his psychological state, and something big is going to happen.
“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” — Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963)
This incredible opening line starts by describing something trivial (hot summer), then juxtaposing it with a rather shocking detail about that summer, and finally wrapping it up in ambiguity and disorientation. Brava, Sylvia!
“People did not know what she knew, that she was not really a woman but a man, often a fat man, but more often, probably, an old man.” — Lydia Davis, What She Knew (2009)
Lydia Davis is the master of flash fiction.This particular short story is only a paragraph long, but it packs a punch! To truly appreciate that first sentence you have to read the second one: “The fact that she was an old man made it hard for her to be a young woman.”
“Nick Naylor had been called many things since becoming chief spokesman for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, but until now no one had actually compared him to Satan.” — Christopher Buckley, Thank You for Smoking (1994)
This is my new favorite first line. What a way to introduce the main character! It gives you an idea of who Nick Naylor is and what he might be like, but at the same time you can’t help wondering how evil could he be to be compared to Satan, and what did he do now?
“When I was single, I was convinced my friends who took the plunge and had their first baby were victims of an alien abduction, because they would disappear from the planet and reappear a year later as unrecognizable strangers.” — Jim Gaffigan, Dad Is Fat (2013)
Comedian and “Hot Pocket guy” Jim Gaffigan starts the first chapter of his funny book about the joys of parenting with this gem. Most people know him for his unique (and somewhat food-centered) comedic style, but he is also a gifted writer! I was hooked immediately by that first sentence, and this turned out to be the best parenting book I’ve ever read.
“The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.” — Samuel Beckett, Murphy (1938)
Love that one. With this short sentence Beckett effortlessly establishes the mood of his avant-garde novel. The opening line reveals the absurdity of the human condition and the longing for something else, something meaningful, perhaps. Here’s another famous opening line with an element of absurd:
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” —George Orwell, 1984 (1949)
And another one:
“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” — Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis (1915)
As far as surprising first sentences go, Kafka’s Metamorphosis is the paragon of the unexpected. The character wakes up as a giant insect! The seemingly mundane tone of the first line intensifies the horror of the situation.
“All children, except one, grow up.” — J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan (1911)
Short and poignant, this first line tells you everything you need to know about the main character.
“They shoot the white girl first.” — Toni Morrison, Paradise (1998)
What a starter! Is there any chance you’re not going to read the next sentence? Nope.
They say: A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. The first sentence is that first step.
My hope is that this selection might inspire someone to write their own masterpiece.
Now that you know everything you need to know about writing a captivating first sentence, what are you waiting for? Begin your journey today!
Seriously, like, now.