Nothing sends sweat trickling down a writer’s neck like the pressure of constructing the perfect opening sentence—a sentence that will mercilessly drag the reader to the next sentence, across the first page and forward into the rest of the book.
Working up an effective first sentence can be paralyzing, so paralyzing that a writer has to take a break for some encouragement (in the form of chocolate) and a reality check. At least, that’s how I felt recently when I closed my laptop to go to my bookshelf and look at first lines from successful, published books. I copied down the first sentence of fourteen of my most favorite YA books so I could analyze them and figure out what the authors did to suck me in.
When I read all those first sentences, divorced from their following paragraphs and pages, I was a little disappointed. I’d expected to see fourteen little bursts of magic but all I saw was ordinary prose. They were not bad sentences, by any means. But, since these were the openings to some of my favorite books, I was expecting sparkles and chills, a glimmer hinting at the brilliance to follow.
I knew I couldn’t rely on my own assessment of this so I brought the list to my critique group for more discussion. I’m lucky enough to be in a group with some awesome, funny and talented writers, including Helen Landalf (author of FLYAWAY.) Helen had a great insight: the ones that stood out for her were the ones that make the reader ask a question.
In the end, we agreed that the first sentence itself doesn’t bear the whole weight of hooking a reader. Every sentence on that first page needs to work together tightly to suck the reader in. Every sentence needs to shine. And many readers won’t feel the hook until they meet a character and connect with them.
Anyone ready for a quiz and a GIVEAWAY? Here are the first lines from ten of the books on my “Most Favorite” shelf. Email me with the titles of the books the lines came from. I will send a copy of OUTSHINE (or an Outshine mug if you are a lovely, brilliant reader who already has my book) to an entry randomly chosen from those with the most correct responses. And, of course, I will post the answers next week!
For those who just want to comment, which of these first sentences make you want to read more?
1. Now that I have found the way to fly, which directions should I go into the night?
2. There’s always that one guy who gets a hold on you.
3. When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.
4. We decided to play another trick on Carlos.
5. The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit.
6. The rose-patterned carpet of the room reminds me of the guest room in my grandmother’s house.
7. I don’t remember any of the true, important parts, but there’s this dream I have.
8. They say that just before you die your whole life flashes before your eyes, but that’s not how it happened for me.
9. “Sir?” she repeats. “How soon do you want it to get there?”
10. Dear Ed, In a sec you’ll hear a thunk.