I read this article by Pamela Rushby in the WQ and wanted to share it here because I love compelling first sentences. I always try to write that hook for the start of my novels (and at the start of every chapter) because I feel it is important to be aware of ways to keep your words engaging and capture your audience. In fact it is one of the items I have on my checklist while editing.
What’s the most important sentence in your story?
When a potential reader picks up your book in a bookshop or library they’ll glance at the cover. Possibly read the blurb on the back. Then, if thy’re still attracted, flip the book open and read the first sentence.
The first sentence.
Now, you have probably not (unless you’re an author/illustrator) designed the cover. Probably not written the blurb on the back. So that first sentence is your first opportunity to grab your reader – and keep them reader.
Which means that the first sentence needs to be a sizzler.
Here are just a few first sentences that I desperately wish I’d written. You probably have favourites of your own – and I’d love to hear them.
- The small boys arrived early for the hanging. (The Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett, Penguin Random House 2016)
- I’ve been collecting bugs since I was ten: it’s the only way I can stop their whispers. (Splintered, A.G. Howard, Amulex Books 2013)
- King Constantine IX of Regia had been killed three times and was bored with it. (The Beggar Queen, Lloyd Alexander, E.P. Dutton 1984)
- The three backpackers were breathing heavily. (Circles of Stone, HarperCollins 2003)
- I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. (I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith, St Martins Griffin 1948)
All pretty compelling, yes? Except one. I slipped that in there because I don’t like it at all. I think it’s weak. Dull. It’s ‘The three backpackers were breathing heavily.’ B-o-r-i-n-g. And I can say that because I wrote it. It’s the first sentence of my ya novel Circles of Stone. It makes me blush now. I’d never use that as a first sentence again.
So how could I have made that stronger – a sizzling first sentence? One way is to locate the first really dramatic incident in the book and make that the first sentence. Put it right up front. Hook the reader, then explain what’s going on in flashbacks.
In Circles I was 2000 words into the story before something exciting happened: the discovery of a centuries-old mummified body in a bog. That’s where I should have begun!
But there are many different ways to start a story, and I’ve collected seven of them.
And here are a few examples:
Action I didn’t hesitate. I shot him
Dialogue “So, Sabrina, just when was it you discovered that you were destined to kill your one ture love?”
Thought 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 Prejidice, Jane Austin)
Senses, feeling He knew there was something about that room, it was the way he shivered and a cold sweat broke out under his arms whenever he passed it.
Surprise, shock I never thought my favourite cousin would try to poison me on my sixteenth birthday.
Question When you start a new school you know it’s not going to be a barrel of laughs, but do you expect to be charged with murder on your first day?
Description Dusk drew in, sleet hissed furiously against the cabin walls, and much closer than they would have liked, something suspiciously like a wolf howled.
Want to try it for yourself? Here’s a short scenario:
It’s 79AD. You’re living in Pompeii, In Italy. You’ve noticed some slight earth tremors in the past few days, but these happen often in Pompeii. Nothing to worry about. Then, without warning, you hear an ear-splitting roar. You turn to see the mountain behind your town has exploded. A huge black cloud is climbing up into the sky.
Now, choose a way to start: action, dialogue, statement, feeling, surprise, question, description.
What’s your first sizzling sentence?
Pamela Rushby has had over 200 books published, both in Australia and overseas. Her books and scripts have won many awards. Her historical fantasy middle-grade novel, The Mummy Smugglers of Crumblin Castle will be published by Walker in 2020. It is guaranteed to have a sizzling first sentence.
I liked that we got specific examples and an exercise to challenge our writer’s brain in creating an attention grabbing first sentence. Is this something you’ve thought of? Have your heard this advice before? Do you have a particular favourite first sentence?
I also like the approach that some authors take of a preface – a cut scene from the most dramatic part of the novel to grab the readers attention.
Additionally, some novels have fun chapter headings, or a weird location to create intrigue like Somewhere beneath the city in the darkness of the catacombs 1:37am.
It’s all about creating an atmosphere to hook your reader… do you have a favourite that you have written? Share some in the comments sections, I’d love the hear them – and possibly find my next five star read!
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