There’s this cult of the opening sentence, as if crafting a perfect first line is the only key to writing a best-selling novel. Here’s my take: it isn’t.
Chances are, I’ve already lost you. According to one website, a writer has ten seconds to capture a reader’s attention. Ten seconds? That is, by my calculations… let’s see… carry the one… divided by whatever is happening on Survivor this week… not a lot of time. The pressure is real, people. Everything depends on your first sentence. Just ask the Internet.
Search “first sentence” online and you’ll see article upon article written by people who know stuff about how important your first sentence is.
Stephen King — he’s famous — once said, “An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”
This quote is EVERYWHERE, but is it just me, or does that sound like Stephen King wants us to join some weird sex cult?
Let’s see if we can find some advice with less of a whiff of Kool-Aid.
K. M. Weiland, in an article on helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com says, “Opening lines are an art form unto themselves. They must introduce a story’s tone, the author’s wit, the plot itself, and, most importantly, a reason why this story is worth the readers’ time.”
Oh, and I’m gonna need you to do that in five words or less, m’kay? No pressure.
“Every part of the story is important,” says someone named Lana Adler at Owlcation.com, “but nothing is as crucial to captivating the reader as the opening sentence.”
OK! I get it! It’s crucial! Damn.
So how does one go about creating this line that has to do so much? Let’s learn from the classics!
Do a search for “greatest opening lines in the history of forever” and you’ll see list after list, each one citing the same suspects: Austen, Salinger, Plath, Camus, Melville. Read these sentences, we are told, and ye shall learn the art of the opener.
For example, one of the most lauded opening lines in literary history is from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Clearly, the lesson we should learn from this classic is to get paid by the word. But honestly, could anyone write such an opening sentence today without some editor going to town on it?
Where, indeed is the hook? You gotta have a hook. Everyone says so.
Let’s take a gander at some other classics, oft-cited for their hook value:
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” —Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
BOOM! See what Orwell does there? Drops a proverbial bomb on that last word. A clock striking thirteen? Wuuuh? Our clocks only go to twelve! I need to read on! So: Bonus points for the surprise ending. Minus points, however, for the passive voice and the severe lack of gunfire. If someone’s not dying by the next sentence, I’m not sure I can waste my precious time.
“I’m pretty much fucked.” —The Martian, Andy Weir
Hmmm. OK, I LOVE the use of profanity. I kind of want to read on. On the other hand… I feel like you’re trying too hard. I don’t know. I may be willing to give this another sentence, but I can’t promise anything.
“They shoot the white girl first.” —Paradise, Toni Morrison
Six words and someone’s already being shot! I’m hooked! Couple of thoughts, though, Toni: our test group said it would play better if the victim was a middle-aged, wealthy white male wearing a Panama hat. Something to think about for the rewrite.
“It is not easy to cut through a human head with a hacksaw.” —Travels, Michael Crichton
OMG, Michael, I adore this. Talk about taking the violence up a level! Anyone can shoot a person. But you have to be one twisted SOB to take a hacksaw to a head. Also, (is this weird?) I feel a little sorry for the narrator. He — is it a he? I feel like it’s a he — is struggling. I’m so conflicted. Like, I want it to be easier for him to cut through this human head. And yet? Should I be feeling this way? So many feels. One tiny thing. I almost hate to bring it up, but let’s make those first two words into a contraction. Thirteen words is a little long, and your narrator comes across as a teensy bit elitist.
“It was the day my grandmother exploded.” —The Crow Road, Iain Banks
Banks FTW! Boom goes grandma! That’s what I’m talking about! I mean, come on: if someone isn’t exploding in the first seven words of your story, are you even trying? (Also, bonus points for having that extra I in your first name. Our marketing department is already firing on all cylinders. You’re gonna be yuuge!)
The cult of the opening sentence
There’s this cult of the opening sentence, as if crafting a perfect first line is the key to writing a best-selling novel.
I get the fascination. First sentences are (usually) pretty short. We can wrap our arms around them and dissect them. Maybe they can show us the way towards enlightenment.
But here’s my advice: Don’t sweat it.
Yes, it’s important to craft a good first sentence. You don’t want to start with something prosaic. Don’t start with the weather. Don’t open your eyes. Don’t tell us how normal everything is. Do begin your book in medias res. Do give us your voice. This is all true.
But the whole importance of the opening sentence has gotten completely out of hand. Especially the “you need a hook” angle.
Here is some advice from a writer I found on the web. A bad opening sentence, she tells us, is this:
“Alexa had just turned thirteen.”
OK. This is not a fantastic opening sentence. Kids turn thirteen all the time, our writer tells us. There’s nothing about this line to pull us in. Fine. But her advice is to change the line to this (and this is real):
“Alexa had just turned thirteen the day the planet exploded.”
I mean, honestly.
Granted, I’m cherry-picking the worst example of writing advice. But this trend is real. There are whole websites dedicated to writing and critiquing first lines.
It’s got to stop.
As an editor I see the results of this “first line is everything” phenomenon all the time. Authors feel like the absolutely most dramatic thing ever has to happen in the first six words or all is lost.
It’s beyond cliché: it’s ridiculous.
Seriously, one can read the most insane opening sentences now and be completely unmoved by it.
“The only thought that occurred to me as I sawed my grandmother’s head off, was ‘Did I leave the oven on?’”
“My daughter took her first step the day the universe collapsed.”
“In front of me was a snail, and I was desperately in love with it.”
OMG make it stop!
Here’s the thing; Some of the best books have boring, even clichéd opening lines. Here’s the first sentence of my all-time favorite book:
“It was love at first sight.” —Catch-22, Joseph Heller
“For a long time I would go to bed early.” In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust
Neither sentence has a hook. Neither necessarily makes us want to read on. Both are beloved classics. These are not exceptions to the rule.
This is from an article by someone named Colin Falconer from his own website:
“A good cover may make us pick the book up and think about buying it. But it’s the first lines [that] are crucial in helping us decide whether we are going to keep reading or not. For my own part, I’ve read plenty of good books whose first lines I don’t remember. I even tore out the first three pages of one of my favorite novels – The Poisonwood Bible – when I came to re-read it. That prologue was so dreary I almost gave up on the book that first time. Thank God I persisted.”
Thank God. But then his very next line is this:
“You can never underestimate the power of a good opening line.”
Does he even hear himself?
Lest you think I’m above the fray, I am not. I have stressed over the first sentences of my books, too, and wasted way too much time rewriting them.
It’s not worth it. There’s no award for the greatest opening line. You’re not going to get a plaque in the Writer’s Hall of Fame. So, let us all join hands and put an end to the Cult of the First Sentence.
Write your first sentence. Make sure it’s as good as your next sentence. And keep going.
A Stellar Book Opening… It’s Not About The Weather
Narrative Structure, Part One: What It Is and How To Use It
Narrative Structure, Part Two: It’s OK To Stray (or: Don’t Forget Your Cockroach Races)
Finding Your Voice As A Writer
The Three-act Structure: Formulaic or Foundational?