The first sentence is a promise

The first sentence of a book is like the air between mouths just before a first kiss. It’s a promise.

It fills you up, yet makes you want more. It’s the precise combination of slight humidity and warmth that takes your hand and invites you in for tea.

Readers open your book, glance at page one and decide if they want to read more. So how do you make them say yes?

The goal of that first sentence is not to entice someone to read your entire book. It’s to get them curious enough to read the next sentence. And the second sentence should make them want to read the third. The third should lead them to the fourth. (You get the idea.)

Some of the best first lines ever written do exactly that.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. —George Orwell, 1984

You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. – —Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. – Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

The only thing particularly interesting about a first sentence is that it has the distinction of being first. So, yeah, it’s important in that it should bring intrigue. But don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Just write it so your reader wants to know what happens next. (Because why read on if the sentence goes nowhere?)

Make it interesting. Lure your reader to ogle the sentence being pulled behind the first. Spill details so that your reader starts asking questions. Make her wonder what happens next. And then tell her.

Withholding information is the single biggest mistake most writers make. It leaves the reader confused and aggravated – and then she stops reading. Give her the information, gently, in bite-size chunks. Never all at once.

The best books make us feel as though we’re walking into a story already underway. In just a few lines, we understand these characters have a believable, tangible past and we are now catching up to what will be the most interesting part of their lives.

This is the saddest story I have ever heard. – Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. —J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye 

Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. —William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury

Keep it simple. But make us want more.

What are some of your favorite first lines? Leave ’em in the comments.

P.S. Since this post went out (about 15 minutes ago), my email has blown up with first lines from YOUR work. If you want me to take a look – and I am happy to – leave those in the comments as well. We can learn from each other.

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26 replies
  1. Desiree
    Desiree says:

    Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the riverbank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, ‘and what is the use of a book’, thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversation?’ – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll

    Reply
  2. Leslie
    Leslie says:

    I never really thought about it before, and in all honesty, the only time I remember being struck by the first sentence of any piece of work is the first line about jade in your Say My Name. As avid a reader as I am, this is one that sticks with me….could be that I identify with the sentiment of that story so very deeply.

    Reply
  3. Tom McCourt
    Tom McCourt says:

    Today’s page in my Moleskin memo tablet looked like almost every other page, just a few words to help trigger my memory, and make me hate April Fools’ Day for the rest of my life: “Fluehr’s…Saint Christopher’s…blue suit…black shoes…Chateau…death certificate”.

    Reply
    • Rebecca T. Dickson
      Rebecca T. Dickson says:

      Try this:

      Today’s page in my Moleskin memo tablet looks like almost every other page. Just a few words to help trigger my memory, and make me hate April Fool’s Day for the rest of my life:

      Fluehr’s
      Saint Christopher’s
      blue suit
      black shoes
      Chateau
      death certificate

      Reply
  4. Kellie Elmore
    Kellie Elmore says:

    Angel sat in the window of her room wearing headphones to escape the screaming world around her. Her mom was in the kitchen throwing dishes at her boyfriends head for cheating on her again while Luke, Bridget’s twelve year old little brother sat behind the shed at the edge of the yard sneaking a smoke he stole from his moms purse. There was no reason to smile. And she never did.

    Opening to my latest ms. It’s ROUGH.

    Reply
  5. Arlene Bailey
    Arlene Bailey says:

    I should have turned around and walked out the way I came in. But how could I? The wedding was paid for, people were counting on me to go through it. The music was playing. Do I continue the long walk up the aisle or turn around and face a different kind of music.

    Reply
  6. Douglas R
    Douglas R says:

    Hi Becky! Chapter one in Horizon starts with:

    I had a dream of my mom.

    But the prologue before that begins with:

    I see the sky passing over my head in a blur. It’s a greenish shade of blue. I think I see two stars up there, more like dots that fade into the dark. 
    I can’t really make it out clearly, I’m half-conscious. My eyes want to close but I don’t want to miss what I’m seeing. It’s beautiful. Amazonia is beautiful. Like they told me. 

    Reply
  7. Renee
    Renee says:

    Welcome to your life blasted from the car stereo as Danielle Galluccio released a yawn. She was heading home from a day of classes then work at the lumberyard. With no break in between, she compensated for all three meals with a few corn chips and a flat soda. Her stomach grumbled. Danielle hoped that Luray would have pity on her and maybe some warm food waiting.

    Reply
  8. EHO
    EHO says:

    “Steven!” she called over as he raced through the office, “He’s in the far corner. And he’s gorgeous! Hurry up, you’re late!”

    Genre: Gay Romance
    Thank YOU!

    Reply
  9. EHO
    EHO says:

    Thanks for asking… “she” is Marian, on old friend and co-worker of Steven, (protag) who is the Lead on a longitudinal study of gays in the 21st century. The other “he” is study subject Sebastian Maine who will become the love interest of Stephen. At this point Stephen has never seen or met Sebastian.

    Reply

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