The first line of a story is crucial to whether or not a potential reader buys and reads it. Authors must take great care with their first sentence. So to learn a bit about them, I’ve selects nine sentences from some of my favorite books to shed light on the mystery of this powerful tool.
Kalak rounded a rocky stone ridge and stumbled to a stop before the body of a dying thunderclast. -- from The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
In The Way of Kings, we immediately get a name, a glimpse of the scenery, motion, and a slew of questions. Who is Kalak? Why is he stumbling? What is a thunderclast? Further, we get a suggestion of danger. Some strange creature is dead before him, suggesting greater peril lurks nearby. And that’s all in 18 words.
“Got one of the yabbos, sir!” -- from Of Blood and Honey by Stina Leicht
This is the only line I selected that begins with dialogue. Dialogue can be an effective way to open a book, but it’s a tricky method so not often used. In this instance, we have no idea who’s speaking, but there’s a sense of urgency and excitement to it. The exclamation point helps with that. It also begs questions. Who is this? Who did they get? What’s going on? And all that in 6 words.
I didn’t realize he was a werewolf at first. -- from Moon Called by Patricia Briggs
This line immediately tells us that the story is in first person. We don’t yet know whether the narrator is male or female; though, presumably, we can guess it’s a woman based on the cover and blurb. The word werewolf tips us off that this is speculative fiction, and for readers who love that sort of thing, it’s an immediate hook. For those who need more than one mention of a werewolf to hook them, the line inspires such questions as: Why didn’t she realize he was a werewolf? Was he dangerous? Who was he? And the line is 9 words.
Dreams weren’t supposed to be able to kill you. -- from Dreamlander by K.M. Weiland
This opening line presents an oxymoron. Dreams, which are by nature insubstantial and theoretically harmless, being potent enough to actually cause harm, much less death, isn’t something we normally think of. Further, the line plays on an innate human fear of the monster under the bed. At some point in our lives, even if just as children, we fear that there’s something to the darkness surrounding sleep, something to the sometimes haunting visions that play through our heads when we close our eyes. Lastly, the line plays on a deeper level of imagery and, perhaps, theme. The story is much like a dream, which readers use to escape, yet in its own way, it’s deadly, which immediately begs the question of why? All in 9 words.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. -- from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Naturally, I had to thrown in one of my favorite classics. Being as this story is over a century old, it naturally has a different feel. It presents a natural concept of the time, but one which we modern readers might find intriguing. Why should a man of good fortune want a wife? Yet, more significantly, the line immediately suggests a hole, a void in life that begs filling. One of fictions main purposes is to fill a void in the reader, whether that void is one that was there originally or one the story opens up via questions and characters. This is done in 23 words.
Not once in ten months of marriage had she wished for her husband’s demise. -- from A Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant
This comes from one of my favorite recent romances. The line works for a variety of reasons. First, the language suggests an older time and immediately gives a sense of place. Second, it sets up an incongruity, the pairing of marriage and a husband’s demise. The wife clearly doesn’t want him dead, yet the issue is the focus of the sentence and thus, suggestively, the story. Something terrible has happened to bring this thought to the fore, and that brings up our usual questions. Why did she not want his demise? What was he like to make the narrator word it in that fashion? Is the husband dead, or is the wife now starting to wish he were? What tragedy has befallen? And again, the suggestion of a lack or void rises, and the only way to fill it is to read on. All done in 14 words.
October 12 was a good day for a killing. -- from The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch
A great first line. We have no idea who this is or why they’ll be killing someone, but it’s immediately catching. It’s direct, brief, and immediately brings into play a vital, gripping moment: death. Again, we ask: Why October 12th? Who is this? Who will be killed? Why will they be killed? Is this a villain or a hero we’re reading about? All in 9 words.
The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone. -- from The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle
Again, we have a character to follow, the unicorn. The line has beauty in its reference to a lilac wood, a suggestion of what we can expect in the narration. More, the line blatantly points out the void needing filling. The unicorn is alone, and by ending the line on that word, it highlights it and leaves us with that feeling of needing something. And, yes, this line encourages questions. Why is the unicorn alone? What does that mean to her? The line is only 12 words.
I had this story from one who had no business to tell it to me, or to any other. -- from Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs
The classic pulp story that inspired many movies had its start in a very enjoyable novel. Yet the first lines is not from Tarzan’s point of view, or any other character in the novel for that matter. It is a faceless, nameless narrator, presumably the author himself. Yet it has pull. It immediately inspires questions. What story? Who told it? Why hadn’t he any business telling it? It’s like a secret blatantly whispered in front of us. We immediately want to know. All done in 18 words.
Take a look at the similarities in these lines. They span a wide range from old to modern, long to short, sparse to lyrical. Some name characters, many do not. Some give an immediate sense of place, and others could be uttered in any setting. Yet all have one crucial thing in common: They inspire questions that the reader must answer by continuing with the story. So, no matter how you construct your first line, ensure that it gets the reader to ask questions.