That First Sentence

As writers, we’ve heard it before from agents – hook them in the first five pages or get a quick rejection. That’s hard work, but necessary if you intend on getting published. But, have you ever been hooked from the very first sentence? There’s something so intriguing about it that you’re just floored. It’s a line you’ll always remember.

Have you ever wondered what made them work so well? I asked my husband why he thought the first line from Stephen King’s Gunslinger series was so amazing. My husband reads a lot of books – probably even more than I do. But he’s not a writer. The answer he gave me? “Well, it’s Stephen King.” When I raised an eyebrow, indicating I wanted more of an answer than that, it offered up, “It’s a chase. There’s a mysterious guy in black.”

I’ve pondered King’s first sentence: The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.

While my husband is right – there’s a certain air of mystery surrounding the man in black and why he’s being followed. But, as a writer I wanted something I could analyze. This is what I’ve come up with – the sentence contains three crucial things: Character, conflict, setting. We have two characters – the man in black and the gunslinger. Conflict? One man is fleeing, the other following. Setting? The desert. But the desert is also a form of conflict, isn’t it? Who in their right mind would flee across a desert? What is so important someone would follow him there? And yes, Stephen King is a master with words. He summed up those three things in a compelling, short hook. We want to know who these people are and why the chase is on. We’ve been dropped straight into action, the crux of the story right out of the gate.

I’m not saying we should all write first line hooks if it doesn’t fit the opening of our story, but it’s worth a shot. At least write something that makes it difficult for the reader to put down your book. I have to admit, my past two books start with what I hope are first line hooks. They’re not anywhere in King’s league, but I’m pretty happy with them. Both give the reader character and conflict first thing.

Got a great first line from a favorite book? Ever look at it closely and find out what makes it work so well? Care to share?

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13 thoughts on “That First Sentence

  1. Ohhh… good call. Thanks. It’s something I think intuitively I probably was familiar with, but having it spelled out really makes a lot of sense. I’m gonna write that down.

  2. I’m one to definitely be sucked in by a good first line, but I don’t generally remember them or tend to evaluate them. So inspired by your post, I took a peek through a few of my favourite books!

    From [i]The Summer Tree[/i] by Guy Gavriel Kay: “In the spaces of calm almost lost in what followed, the question of [i]why[/i] tended to surface”

    Though it’s a bit wordy (and perhaps a bit wordier than the rest of the book), this builds such suspense. What happened so extreme that the spaces of calm were almost lost, and ‘Why’ was such an important question?

  3. Im going to quote from the same book. The opening line from the prologue and the opening line of chapter one:

    Prologue
    The Drenai herald waited nervously outside the great doors of the throne room, flanked by two Nadir guards who stared ahead, slanted eyes fixed on the bronze eagle emblazened on the dark wood.

    Chapter One
    Rek was drunk. Not enough to matter, but enough not to matter , he thought, staring at the ruby wine casting blood shadows in the lead crystal glass.

    Why they work so well for me I don’t know but theyre from my Favourite author’s first book. I think its the way that the scenes set in the first leaving you wondering why a herald was visiting and who were the Nadir.

    For the opening of chapter one, you wonder why is he drunk, why does he care and why the blood shadows from the glass. Its set it up for me and I have to know more.

    I suspect that part of it is about giving the reader a hook, look at Moby Dick’s opener “Call me Ishmael.” Its short and you wonder who this guy is.

  4. Five pages? You’ve had agents allow you five pages? That’s huge! I wouldn’t read anything that took that long to hook me.

    These days, I think a writer can get away with a first sentence that isn’t a hook — provided it clearly sets up the second sentence that is. Jeanette Winterson does this expertly in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit:

    “Like most people I lived for a long time with my mother and father.”

    The first sentence here is so mundane, so boring, it begs the question, “What’s the punchline?” Jeanette Winterson delivers it with sentences two and three:

    “My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle; it didn’t matter what. She was in the white corner and that was that.”

    Now we have three characters — and we know which one is the driving force in the protagonist’s life. We’re immediately set up for a coming of age story with a clear and (we hope) humorous (which it is) conflict.

    Some favourites that deliver hooks in the first sentence include:

    Nancy Kress’ Beggars in Spain:

    “They sat stiffly on his antique Eames chairs, two people who didn’t want to be here, or one person who didn’t want to and one who resented the other’s reluctance.”

    Character, conflict and intrigue: Where are they that they don’t want to be and why?

    Melissa Scott’s Trouble and Her Friends:

    “Trouble was gone.”

    Short, sweet and to the point. Also a play on words, because usually the departure of trouble means the end of conflict, but in this case, we know “Trouble” is a character’s name and therefore her disappearance is anything but the end.

    Douglas Smith writes great opening sentences. (Mind you, these are all from short stories, where the pressure to nail the opening is intensified.)

    from “The Dancer at the Red Door”:

    “Alexander King first met the Dancer on the day the street people began to glow.”

    from “By Her Hand She Draws You Down”:

    “Joe swore when he saw Cath doing a kid.”

    from “Bouquet of Flowers in a Vase, by van Gogh”:

    “The painting screamed Laure’s name at Maroch.”

    from “Murphy’s Law”:

    “Dex hadn’t planned to save the entire human race. Mostly, he’d been trying not to die, while still keeping his job in the process–two goals that, Dex had learned, were often mutually exclusive.”

    That first sentence doesn’t need to be action — we can be “hooked” by suspense, humour, intrigue, or any number of things — and the story can begin at the beginning, in medias res, or even after the fact, but I think it does need to be a hook (or, at least, a lead into one).

    • You’ve got a few good examples there. Yep. A good hook grabs the reader’s attention right out of the gate. A good first sentence ensures they’ll read the whole first paragraph.

  5. Five pages? These days I think you need to hook them in the first couple of paragraphs. ::sigh:: But you’re right. There’s something about that all important first line.

    • Yeah, you’ve got to get them in the first few paragraphs. Then, they’ll give you a page. Then five, then ten.

      I think it’s why that first sentence has to have something – a hook, a punch, a beautiful description, a great lead in to the next sentence.

  6. First, I think it’s funny that you and I are both talking about Stephen King books in our blogs this week.

    Second, I agree with Donna, I doubt most agents give that five pages unless something grabs them earlier. Other than the one you mentioned, I don’t have any first lines that I just “know”. For me, the first line is less important than the first page. In a book store, I’ll give an author a page. They either grab me there, or they don’t, but I definitely give more than that first line.

    • I’ll give them a page. But, if the first line hooks me, I’m there. All they have to do is keep it interesting. It’s a handsome face and a bright smile.

      • So, I critted a piece on my (other) writing group earlier this week. The first sentence was awesome, hooked me right away. Sadly, the rest of the chapter didn’t live up to it 😦 Personally, give me a mediocre first sentence that builds to something great any day over a fabulous first sentence that then suffers a horribly painful death.

  7. I picked an opening sentence at random from one of the novels I have on hand.

    They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible
    – from On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan.

    It’s a long sentence, but it tells the reader what one of the themes and conflicts will be. It probably wouldn’t be considered a strong opening sentence for a popular novel. But, since McEwan had already published Atonement, he had an advantage in the literary category.

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