Thursday, August 16, 2012

Hooking readers with a great first sentence

I’ll say it up front: I’m a real sucker for a good first sentence in a novel. I may read on if the sentence is ho-hum, but I’ll read more eagerly if the first sentence pulls me into the story.
Like many readers I’ll peruse the books on a shelf and pick up novels by authors I’ve previously enjoyed or select a book whose title or cover catches my eye. I’ll flip it over and read the back cover copy and then turn to the first page. Reading the first lines of a novel is like going out on a blind date, I don’t know what to expect, but I’m hoping to be pleasantly surprised, swept off my feet, and fall madly in love.
Some people contend that the most difficult sentences to write in a novel are the first ones. After all, they are the hook that draws people in. My favorite first sentences are the ones that make me ask, “what??” —the lines that peak my curiosity and leave me panting for more. Please don’t give me a weather report or tell me what the character looks like. I want to read a provocative statement or a question that has me hungering for an answer.
Here are a few of my favorite first lines:
In the moments before, she laid a hand on his arm. “No matter what,” she said, giving him a look, “you cannot stop.”
Mercy by Jodi Picoult
A grieving woman, I’ve decided, is like a crème brulee: she begins in a liquid state, endures a period of searing heat, and eventually develops a scablike crust.
Doesn’t She Look Natural by Angela Hunt
I watched her for three days, sitting by myself in the park underneath an elm tree, beside an empty fountain with a series of uneaten sandwiches in my lap and my purse at my side.
Little Earthquakes by Jennifer Weiner
I sneaked down to the boat that night to say this couldn’t happen anymore.
Healing Stones by Nancy Rue
I Twittered a request for favorite first lines, and novelist Lena Nelson Dooley sent me a few:
The click of a rifle being cocked stopped J. L. in his tracks.
Golden Dreams by Kathleen Yapp
On the night of the first murder, a full moon sailed over middle Georgia.
But why Shoot the Magistrate by Patricia Sprinkle
Literary Agent Rachelle Gardner also responded to my Twitter plea for favorite first lines. She teaches a workshop on writing the first page, and here are some sample first pages that she shares with students:
I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old.
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
From my first breath in this world, all I wanted was a good set of lungs and the air to fill them with—given circumstances, you might presume, for an American baby of the twentieth century. Think about your own first gasp: a shocking wind roweling so easily down your throat, and you still slipping around in the doctor’s hands. How you yowled! Not a thing on your mind but breakfast, and that was on the way.
Peace Like a River by Leif Enger
I was six years old the first time I disappeared.
Vanishing Acts by Jodi Picoult
In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing.
A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
There once was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb and he almost deserved it.
Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C S Lewis.
I have been afraid of putting air in a tire ever since I saw a tractor tire blow up and throw Newt Harbine's father over the top of the Standard Oil sign.
The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver?
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov?
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen?
What are you thoughts on first lines? Which are your favorites.
For more on first lines, here's the American Book Review’s list of the 100 best first lines from novels.


Precarious Yates said...

I struggle so much with that dreaded first sentence. I think I get shy because I know it will be somebody's introduction to me, and so I clam up. One of my favorite 'first lines' comes from a book that was waaaaay too scary for me, and I normally wouldn't recommend to anyone. But the first line was absolutely brilliant:

The great gray beast February had eaten Harvey Swick alive. Buried in the belly of that smothering month, he wondered if he would ever find his way out between the cold coils that lay between Christmas and Easter.

I'd love to write something that brilliant for the opening line!

Precarious Yates said...

I forgot to mention - that's from The Thief of Always by Clive Barker.

Megan DiMaria said...

That's a fabulous first line! Thanks for sharing.

coastalgal77 said...

I agree, the first line is the bait needed to hook us in and make us even willing to get to the last which is like the bookend to it's mate and just as important. I tend to command a formula in all my work. Whether it is a journalism project, a poem, lyrics to a song, a piece from my blog or the last sentence in my novel.
(which has been sitting for the last few months due to that very rule of mine!)