It’s been a while since I’ve posted, but I’m going to go ahead and say that’s a good thing because I have actually been quite busy. I am still out on submissions for MIMICRY, and at the same time I have been revising my new novel (and the third book I’ve ever written), a Young Adult mystery.
This is on top of my day job, my newfound love of rock climbing, and a wonderfully healthy relationship, but that’s neither here nor there. But it’s time to get back into it, and today I want to talk about something every author thinks about: the first sentence of your novel. It’s arguably the most important aspect of your book, the thing that pulls in a reader, an agent, an editor. I absolutely love first sentences, and I will very much admit that I tend to judge books based on them. Is your first sentence grabby? Insane? Interesting? Thought-provoking? Slightly confusing? Then chances are, I’m going to like the rest of it.
I myself have a tendency to start my books with a first sentence that somehow always ends up mentioning death in some sense, and I’m not going to sit around and analyze why that is, so instead, I’d like to share some of my favorite opening sentences from a bunch of different novels:
- “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.” – Toni Morrison, Beloved
- Yes, okay, I talk about Beloved a lot. I’ve listed it on this blog before. And technically, that’s two first sentences, but what can I say, that is a BONKERS opening. I love everything about it. It’s weird, jarring, and immediately makes you go, “Wait, what the fuck?” You can’t help but continue reading to figure out what the hell it all means.
- “It was a pleasure to burn.” – Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
- I will admit that there is a 60% chance I will get this tattooed on my body at some point in my life. It is so simple, but so powerful and intense. It sets up the entire plot, introduces you to a fascinating character, and defies you to put it down after reading such a sentence.
- “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” – JK Rowling, Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone
- So, this list wouldn’t be complete without this, because it was a huge part of my childhood, and the first chapter book I was able to read on my own. The first sentence of the series that captured the love and attention of billions. It doesn’t stand out outrageously, but it makes it very clear from the jump that there will be literally nothing normal about what you’re about to read.
- “Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die.” – Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
- I have mixed feelings about the book since I feel like it’s been a bit poisoned by the frat bros who seem to have decided it’s their Bible, but nonetheless, this is a fantastic opener. You instantly have a load of questions, and it hits you over the head with drama. And it just keeps going from there.
- “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” – J.R.R Tolkien, The Hobbit
- Again, capture your reader’s attention by making them ask questions, such as, “What in the hell is a hobbit?” Fun fact, my little sister spent the entire book thinking Bilbo was a rabbit because she equated living in a hole with bunnies, and his feet were hairy. Apparently that’s all it takes to be a rabbit in her mind.
- “The children were playing while Holston climbed to his death; he could hear them squealing as only happy children do.” – Hugh Howey, Wool
- Yikes. Eerie, creepy, gut-punching. The book is letting us know the tone right away, and it’s a strong one. For context, this is a dystopian sci-fi and it is definitely worth the read if you haven’t already; humanity is confined to silos underground, and the book opens with the sheriff asking to go outside: a great taboo.
- “I love my father because I know that he will never die.” – Philippa Gregory, The Last Tudor
- This book is a historical fiction about the Grey sisters in Tudor England, right after their family’s grab for power. The opening line conveys not only how those monarchs thought, but also makes you uncomfortably excited to see exactly when this dude does die, because Jane Grey is sadly misinformed about the nature of humanity. It’s also interesting to point out that she appears to love her father only because of her belief in his immortality.
- “Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our village.” -Naomi Novik, Uprooted
- If you read two sentences more, you’ll find out this isn’t an actual dragon, but a man. Still a very gripping way to start a novel though. Right away, you’re curious, you’re concerned, and you’re hungry for more. This book is a sort of fairy tale retelling, and is definitely worth a read.
- “Once there was a tree…and she loved a little boy.” -Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree
- Talk about a sob-fest. If you’ve read the book before (and if you haven’t, hello, was it cold and lonely underneath that rock?), you know what’s coming, and it’s a brutally beautiful portrayal of love, and what it means to give all of yourself to someone. Also, it’s already a funky first sentence: it’s a tree that is gendered and personified. That’s weird. I’m into it.
These are just a few of the books I’ve encountered that have had first sentences that stay with you, that engage you and challenge you to keep reading. It’s been my goal to create stories that use the same sorts of hooks. I don’t pretend that I’m as good as any of these authors (yet), but writing is a ladder, and every step you take brings you closer to your ultimate goal, and makes you a better writer. So here’s to having a killer first sentence. I can’t wait until the world can read mine.
Did I miss any of your favorites? Let me know in the comments.