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Friday, July 4, 2014

How to Write a Good First Sentence

(Listen or watch this writing tip on Youtube)

internraven said: I'm working on a novel now, and I've got everything planned out- outline, characters, a playlist, etc. I just can't find a first sentence. Do you have any tips for coming up with a good first sentence for a novel?

Coming up with a Good First Line for a Novel

Method 1
For some people, it's easiest to just start writing and come back and look through what's been written to see if any of it would work as a good first sentence. Then the writer rearranges the first few pages to accommodate that. He finds his first sentence by writing.

Method 2
This is similar to Method 1. The writer just starts writing, and it might be a bunch of rambling stuff that's actually not that important to the story. The writer is just trying find the beginning of the story. When she discovers it, she chops off the starting, where all the rambling is.

Method 3
If you want to start with a good first sentence right off the bat, think of some sort of hook you could begin your opening scene with. The first sentence usually needs to grab the reader somehow. Keep reading for how to do that.

A Great First Sentence
The main elements of a story are character, setting, conflict, and theme. Pick one of those elements and come up with an interesting first sentence to introduce it.

The best first sentences usually promise conflict or intrigue us somehow. A lot of people think they need to start with something life-threatening, like a bomb going off. That can work, but it can also get old, if it's not told in an interesting way, like this:

The bomb blew apart the grocery store down the street; Grandma Smith listened to the sirens and went back to knitting with a smirk.

The opening sentence doesn't have to contain life-altering information to be a great one. It just has to be interesting and make us want to learn more. One way to do this is to create interesting contrasts. Here are some examples I came up.

Mom handed me my Birthday present, and my stomach dropped.

We usually associate birthdays with happy emotions, but the narrator feels sick about this present, so immediately, we want to why, so we keep reading. It's an interesting contrast.

I took twice as long as usual to brush my teeth because Dad always preached the importance of looking your best at funeral.

The contrast here is that we start with something mundane and boring and relate it with something life-altering.

You can grab attention by opening with an intriguing description. One of my favorite sentences comes from Dashiell Hammet's The Maltese Falcon. He opens his story with a character description, and while this sentence wasn't THE opening sentence, it would have worked brilliantly:
[Samuel Spade] looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.
Okay, there are several great things happening here at once. First, I would never say that looking like Satan was pleasant, so I'm curious to read more. Second, the main character is being compared to Satan--I'm interested to know more about him. And the qualifier of "blond," just makes me more curious.

You don't have to use the contrast technique, but I think it probably works most of the time. Sometimes just a poignant description works. Here is how Eragon by Christopher Paolini opens:
Wind howled through the night, carrying a scent that would change the world.
One more technique: capture your character or narrator's voice very well. A great voice is one of the first things that grabs editors' attention. Here is the opening of Harry Potter:
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.
Can you hear that interesting voice in "proud to say they were perfectly normal, thank you very much"?

Openings to Avoid
I have gone through thousands of unpublished story openings, and I can't tell you how many times I get openings like this:
I woke up to my alarm clock blaring. I got out of bed like usual and got dressed and showered. I had toast and eggs for breakfast. I went to work just after eight. --this is boring, and I know it's not important to the story. Get me to the important part!
Also, try to avoid starting your story with your character waking up, waking up on a regular day doing regular things, or waking up from cryosleep, waking up at all. I see stories like this all the time, so when a story starts that way, I don't want to read it.

Avoid these:
  • Openings where characters are running away from something vague.
  • Stories that open with dreams or flashbacks. It's extra bad when it's interesting and then the writer goes "haha, just kidding, it's a dream!" signaled by the sentence, "I woke up to my alarm clock blaring."
  • Beginnings where the character doesn't remember who she is or how she got there.
  • Startings where a character is looking in a mirror at herself.
  • Openings where a character is sitting and thinking or sitting and remembering and nothing is really happening in the present. If I read "I remember. . ." a red flag goes up for that story.
  • First paragraphs about the weather.
  • Beginnings that happen in bars or clubs or start with a cup of coffee. 
  • The "historical" opening, where the writer gives me a complete history lesson of their world or their character or their magic system.
  • Openings that say somewhere, "It's all started back when. . ."
I'm not saying these openings can never work (all writing rules can be broken), and many of these things are perfectly acceptable later in your story, but if you start your story this way, you better have a good reason for starting this way and an interesting way of telling it, because they are super cliche, and I groan every time I get one.

Hope that helps you with your first sentence! Good luck!


  1. September,

    Great article and fascinating blog. I have linked back. I am embarrassed to confess I have a never-written story that starts with the hero looking in a mirror realising he has lost his memory. He is in the men's room of a bar, but at least isn't drinking coffee!!

    Thanks again

    1. Thanks!

      Hahaha! Oh yes, I'm sure I have some bad beginnings too! It's part of the learning process. I've definitely done some cliche writing in my learning process. Thanks for reading and comment, Tony.

  2. That first perfect sentence can be so elusive - thanks for these examples:) Good to know I'm not alone in rambling on for paragraphs, in the hope of inspiration striking.

    1. Nope, plenty of other writers try that technique ^_^

  3. When my alarm clock rang, I woke up and gazed into the mirror across the room where a pale blond with ice-blue eyes stared back – a strange but familiar woman I couldn’t name. The rain outside my window reminded me of another day it had rained. In fact, it had been raining in my dream just before I woke, a dream in which I’d been frightened, running from some vague threatening thing. Had it been a dream or the memory of something real? I wasn’t sure. I reached for the mug of coffee on a breakfast tray someone had left. I had no memory of another person, yet the coffee was still steaming. I took a sip as I catalogued the things I didn’t know, starting with my name… 😂


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