Starting your book is a great leap. You just want to sit down and get all of your thoughts on to that paper. Then you stop. You recall, from in the deepest corners of your mind, someone saying the first sentence is the most important.
A books first sentence has to hook the reader, make them want to read more. If you cannot capture your reader at the start they probably won’t stay for the whole thing. Worse. The start doesn’t mean the first chapter, or the first page, often, it’ the first few sentences because people are impatient with there time. They must believe the story is worth investing in from the off or they simply will not bother.
But do not panic. Although it sounds like a nightmare there are a few rules that work. Here is a list of those rules with examples to help.
The Examples section will start with a couple of examples from previously published novels that the world has already expressed love for. The second half of the examples section will be a few quick, short sentences that can be used as to start a novel effectively.
Start With Action
Nothing draws people in like a good bit of action. You se it all the time in TV series and Hollywood movies. Take, for example, an episode of 911; They start with chaos, an action, a fight, an explosion, something to get the adrenaline pumping.
Or, think about the opening scene of Star Wars: A New Hope. A ship under attack by Darth Vader. It was exciting, it got people invested.
These are the feelings we need to duplicate in our writing when we start with action.
I recently came across a book that broke all the rules. True it started with action, or an action, but the sentence was only one world long and still convinced me to read on: Rain.
A.N.T.I.D.O.T.E by Malorie Blackman
“I’m in deep, deep trouble. And like the biggest fool in the universe, I’m about to wade out even deeper still. But I don’t have any choice. Because they’ve got my mum.”
LA Confidential by James Ellroy
“An abandoned auto court in the San Berdoo foothills; Buzz Meeks checked in with ninety-four thousand dollars, eighteen pounds of high-grade heroin, a 10-gauge pump, a .38 special, a .45 automatic, and a switchblade he’d bought off a pachuco at the border—right before he spotted the car parked across the line: Mickey Cohen goons in an LAPD unmarked, Tijuana cops standing by to bootsack his goodies, dump his body in the San Ysidro River.”
- I turned to the sound of footsteps and saw he was running straight for me.
- I know the voices aren’t real, but I agreed we should kill him.
- I got up believing it would be a normal day, until the bridge literally vanished from under me.
Start With A Question
Nothing get’s people hooked like a question. Once a question has been asked it has to be answered, people don’t like to be left hanging. When you answer the question is up to you, how you answer it is much more important.
A few things to note:
- It has to be a question people want to hear an answer to.
- The more intriguing the question the more people will continue to read.
- Unexpected questions are awesome. (How did I die?)
- Create a mystery or a shocking moment to grasp attention.
- The question can be posed through conversation, thought, or narration. (“Who are you?” Who was he? Why did she not recognise her father when he walked in?)
Shadowmagic by John Lenahan
“How come you never told me I had an aunt?”
The Iron Man by Ted Hughes
“The Iron Man came to the top of the cliff. How far had he walked? Nobody knows. Where had he come from? Nobody knows. “
- Would the world still be in one piece if I hadn’t interfered?
- “Should I have told them?”
- Why does the clock always strike thirteen on Thursday?
- Should I go to the right, or t the left?
Start With A Decision
A little decision. This could be as simple as choosing between a jumper and a hoodie for the day ahead. It is always interesting to see your character making the first move. Start the introduction. Tea, or coffee. Sugar or not?
The reason could start small and turn into something big; left or right? go out or stay in? Make friends or walk away?
Think of a dungeon master in a game of Dungeons and Dragons, think of the potential outcomes for the small decision. In doing this you can see what big outcomes can come from a small choice. Have you main character make a decision for your reader to think about. Why tea over coffee? Preference, migraines, allergies, or just don’t like the smell. Some of these things can go on to play a bigger role later on – all of these things can if you have a big enough imagination.
Dave Eggers, What Is the What
“I have no reason not to answer the door so I answer the door.”
- I have never liked sugar in my coffee, but today I needed it.
- Her finger twitched on the trigger before she turned the gun away.
- It would have been easy for him to declare his love for her in that moment, but he decided not to.
- I could sit here and debate with myself all day, but I decided to face it head-on.
- I chose the tulips.
Start With A Statement
A book opening that has always stayed with me started with a statement. When you look at the top 100 first lines of a book most start with a statement. A statement can leave a lasting effect on the reader especially if that statement is jarring, or unexpected.
What makes a statement?
The Dictionary tells us that a statement is an assertion that something is or is not the case.
It is clear, concise, quick, easy to understand and, when used right, can leave the reader with a lot of questions.
“I wasn’t there when I died.” – honestly I can’t remember who wrote this book. It is a book I read as a teen and that is the first line. It is a statement that leaves many unanswered questions, catches the reader of guard and draws them in.
Fahrenheit 451 By Ray Bradbury
“It was a pleasure to burn.”
1984 By George Orwell
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
- The sky was green.
- The Earth is square on a Monday.
- My name has changed too many times.
- I drank too much.
- It’s my fault they died.
Writing Round Up
I wasn’t there when I died is the most memorable book opening I have ever read. However, I don’t think I ever finished the book. All I really remember is the opening line and the book being dreadfully dull. Clearly, the opening line is not important if the story that follows is not interesting, lacks amazing character development, lacks a reason to want to see what happens.
Sure, the opening line is important if you want to draw a reader in, but you need a well-written story to make the reader stay.
Do not fret about the opening lines too much.