A close friend of mine has a test she gives to each book she picks up in the store. Instead of reading the blurb on the back to determine if she’s interested, she’ll read the first sentence. And unless that first sentence sings, she’ll put it down.
That’s how long you have to capture your reader: a single sentence. That’s all that they are willing to give you.
And it’s not just novels in a bookstore either. When editors read your work, they’ve usually made their decision by the first couple of sentences. Even if they keep reading, a lackluster opening will leave a bad taste in their mouth.
Now, everyone has a different technique for capturing their reader’s attention, and there is no one right way to do it, but here is a strategy that helps me and hopefully will help you as well.
First, let’s look at some examples of bad first sentences (mine). This is from a novel I wrote several years ago:
At the peak of a green hill, in the center of a long, flat expanse over which there was nothing sat a girl in a red jacket, invisible against the backdrop of bloody red sunlight.
The first thing you may notice that this sentence is weighed down with adjectives. The second thing you may notice is the marks on your forehead from where you fell asleep on your keyboard while reading it.
Not only is it lackluster, but the reader has no idea what kind of story they’re reading. You’ve got a girl on a hill. That’s it. Is it science fiction? Is it a mystery? Romance? It could be just about anything.
When writing this, I made the mistake that a lot of new writers make: opening with description–first the setting, then the characters. And while beginning with description is fine if you’re very talented, if you’re just starting out like I was, it’s probably going to bore your reader.
A much better strategy for writing your first sentence is to begin with the conflict. Here’s an example from Stephen King’s novel The Gunslinger.
The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
I love this sentence. The reader learns so much just from 12 words.
Not only do you learn the conflict (the gunslinger is chasing the Man in Black), you also learn the setting (the desert), the main characters (the Man in Black and the gunslinger), and the genre (western, as implied by the word gunslinger).
Here’s another example from Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly
Once a guy stood all day shaking bugs from his hair. The doctor told him there were no bugs in his hair.
I know this is technically two sentences, but again, I admire the straightforwardness. You can probably guess from this that the book is about drug abuse (meth bugs). The reader automatically understands the character’s struggle.
These two sentences are both straightforward (both are short and have no adjectives), and they both introduce the central conflict.
Again, there are different techniques for writing a first sentence but this is what works for me: introducing the conflict before anything else. This engages the reader and hooks them into reading more.
What’s your strategy for writing first sentences, and what are your favorites? Let me know in the comments.
Dick, Philip K. A Scanner darkly. New York, NY: Random House, 1977. Print.
King, Stephen. The gunslinger. N.p.: Donald M. Grant, Publisher, Inc., 1982. Print.