Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Opening Sentences

This being the beginning of a new year, I was thinking about beginnings – of books, that is.

It used to be that books started slowly, with the weather or with character development. Then they evolved into quicker starts. You needed to hook the reader (or agent) by the end of the first chapter. Then it was by the end of five pages, then one. Now everyone wants to be hooked by the first sentence.

That’s not an easy task, although some authors make you think so. But in most cases, it wasn’t easy for them. They slaved and worked and rewrote and rewrote that first sentence. So, if you’re struggling with your opening sentence, don’t give up.

I went to my library shelves and pulled out some books. Here are the first sentences of four of those books.

From Danielle Steel in Secrets:
The sun reverberated off the buildings with the brilliance of a handful of diamonds cast against an iceberg, the shimmering white was blinding, as Sabina lay naked on a deck chair in the heat of the Los Angeles sun.

From Katherine Dunn in Geek Love:
When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets,” Papa would say, “she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing.

Sharon Kahn in Fax Me a Bagel:
You haven’t lived until you’ve died in Eternal, Texas.

Lee Child in The Hard Way:
Jack Reacher ordered espresso, double, no peel, no cube, foam cup, no china, and before it arrived at his table he saw a man’s life change forever.

Each sample is from a different kind of book. Each sentence is different and sets a different mood and tone. Each one is great. Each one makes you want to read more.

Think about your own book beginning. Will it make the reader/agent want to keep reading?


  1. Difficult one.

    I decided to try and hook in the first couple of paragraphs in my book. And went for a short first sentence rather than try and construct a long sentence to include the hook in it.

    So mine is:

    The sun exposed the beach in its glare.

    hmmm ... sounds a bit lonely all on its own.

  2. It's definitely not easy. And I don't think most readers/agents will quit after the first sentence (unless perhaps for content, bad grammar or mis-spellings). If it just can't be done in the opening sentence (and a lot of books are like this), then it's best to try to hook them within the first couple of paragraphs, definitely something to grab their attention within the first page.

    I have to admit, when I'm browsing the book store, I usually look at the back cover blurb, then turn to the first page. If I'm not interested by the end of the second paragraph, I usually put it back on the shelf.

  3. Oh boy, I agree, sometimes it is hard to know what is enough, as Mike says, and what's too much! Well, we did choose a tough passion didn't we?

  4. I tend to edit and work on the first page/first chapter more than any part of the book. But I've learned not to work it to death. I keep on writing, then go back occasionally and re-visit it. Waiting time in-between edits gives you a different perspective.


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