3 Simple Steps to Craft a Perfect Opening Line
First sentences are hard. That’s a simple truth. Even more so when you consider they’re the most important sentence in your book, right? And there are lots of articles that talk about how to write killer first sentences, but what I’m about to share with you is easily the best technique I’ve ever found.
There’s an excellent course on The Great Courses App, by Talir J. Mazzeo, which covers the three steps I’ll share with you below. But, if you have thirty minutes, I encourage you to check out the course here.
Now on to this marvelous technique.
How to Write a Killer First Sentence
First Sentences Should Do 3 Things
1.) Start establishing character (voice, specifically.)
2.) Create tension.
3.) Introduce narrative. (Something needs to happen because of something that happened.) Or the actual definition: a spoken or written account of connected events; a story.
Here are some examples:
Lee Child’s Jack Reacher: Night School
“In the morning they gave Reacher a medal, and in the afternoon they sent him back to school.”
1.) We don’t know a lot about this character yet, which is fine, but what he’s saying is interesting. It could be read as him stating simple fact, or as dry sarcasm, but either way, his statement is strong voice. We want to know his motives for telling us this.
2.) There’s plenty of tension here. If this man got a medal, (and what is the medal for, btw,) then why are they sending him back to school? Is this punitive?
3.) He told us he got a medal, so we know something interesting happened that got him that medal and something else happened, presumably, because despite, or because of, what he did they’re sending him back to school.
That’s great narrative.
RE Vance and R. W. Clark’s Soulbound
“Justin Truly had broken.”
1.) Again, a strong statement equals strong voice in a first sentence. Why? Because it’s all we have so far. We haven’t had a full book to get to know this person, so we have to rely on a strong first statement to pull us in. And boy, oh, boy, is this strong.
2.) Is there tension? Someone broke. Not something. Someone. So, yeah, I’d say we’ve got good tension.
3.) The statement, first sentence, poses a strong question. Again something happened that caused this—something happened that made Justin Truly break, and something will have to happen because of it. Can he be fixed? Do we want him to be fixed?
Strong narrative? Uh, yeah. Yep. Yes, it is.
Now, I hear you saying, “Emily, that’s all fine and good if you’re writing a thriller or urban fantasy or something along those lines, but what if I’m writing a romance, biography, or children’s books?”
This formula works with everything. EVERYTHING. It takes practice to learn how to do it properly, as you’d expect, but once you’ve got it down, it’ll make your audience desperate to keep reading.
Here’s one more example:
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
1.) She could have said that if a man was rich that the community at large, namely the women, would consider the man fair game for marriage, but where’s the humor (the snark!) in that? We get so much “voice” in this sentence that it’s easy to start imagining the kind of person saying it.
2.) Is there tension?
We have a wealthy man or men, who according to everyone, it seems, (“universally acknowledged,”) is or are “in want of a wife.” So, who is this man? Who will his wife be? There are clearly lots of options. And, based on the not so small amount of sarcasm in this sentence, we want to know if he really even wants a wife.
So, yeah, I’d say there’s a fair amount of tension.
3.) Something happened, a man is single and wealthy, and now something will happen, the community thinks he needs a wife and will, presumably, push for that result. We want to know what will happen to achieve, or hinder, that. We have narrative.
A Few More Things to Consider When Creating Your Opening Lines
1.) Infusing humor into your opening line is also a great way to grab the readers attention.
2.) Opening lines are not a great place for exposition, unless the exposition is a crucial part of the plot and/or surprising. Writers are so often tempted to tell readers where their characters are and what they’re doing, but this can be deadly boring unless your character is doing something completely out of the norm, like spying on a crush or dissecting a body. (Hopefully those are two separate books, or actually . . .)
3.) Opening lines are also not a great place to play with run-on sentences. Keeping it short and to the point is always better than having your first sentence double as your first paragraph.
4.) A good first sentence will often hint at the rest of the book, like Pride and Prejudice did.
5.) Sometimes the best way to start a book is by waiting until you’ve finished it. If you’re struggling, skip that first sentence for now and come back when the book is finished. I’ve found this incredibly helpful in my own writing.
6.) And this is the most important rule of all. There is an exception to every rule. If you’ve found it, more power to you.
Another way to think of this is that you’re creating a mini mystery in that first sentence. Asking a question that will keep us turning the pages. And it’s not a mystery or question you have to answer right away. Sometimes it’s better not to.
In Night School, you don’t find out why Reacher is sent back to school until the second chapter, and are then presented an even bigger question. In Pride and Prejudice, that first sentence is also the story question for the entire book.
So, there it is, How to Write a Killer First Sentence. This, my dear friends is a writing super power. Use it wisely.
Grab several books, some you love, some you don’t, and some somewhere in between. Now write down the first sentences and see how many of their first sentences meet the three rules above, (you can check for the extras at the end, too, if you’d like. 😉
If you’re an overachiever, you can rewrite the sentences from the books that missed the mark.
After that, go to your work in progress and check how yours adds up. You’ll be glad you did.
If you have any questions for me or know a great opening sentence, drop it in the comments below. Let’s support our fellow authors who are doing it right.