The first sentence of your fiction novel is the key to getting readers to purchase your book. It’s what makes or breaks a sale.
Similar to first impressions, the purpose of the first line is to impress readers so they give your book a chance.
Therefore, you need to ensure that your “hook” is irresistible. Here are 8 ways to craft that compelling first sentence of your story.
Disclosure: Some of the links below are affiliate links. I will earn a small commission, at no extra cost to you, if you purchase through these links. Your support encourages me to continue blogging and help with the costs of hosting this site. Thank you!
Purposes Of The First Sentence
As mentioned earlier, the opening line of a novel is like a “hook” where the goal is to arrest your readers’ attention. It should entice readers to continue reading past the first page. Simply put, it should be irresistible.
The first sentence is also your chance to showcase your writing style, introduce your protagonist or setting, or establish the inciting incident (the event that sets the protagonist or main characters on a journey, or the key incident that sets the story in motion). This is the readers’ first impression of your story. If it’s great, they’ll take your book to the counter and check it out. But if they don’t like it, they’ll put it back on the shelf and move on to another book.
Therefore, this opening line is crucial, especially in a bookstore with thousands of books.
The first sentence is thus like an invitation to encourage readers to hang around.
1. Bring Your Protagonist To The Foreground
The first sentence is your chance to introduce the main character of your novel, the protagonist.
You could show what your protagonist is thinking or put him or her in a situation that almost everyone has experienced before. This will help readers instantly feel a connection to the protagonist because he or she is relatable.
Or you could showcase your protagonist’s personality or voice. This way, readers immediately know what kind of person the protagonist is. Of course, it doesn’t have to be a strength. It could be a weakness or flaw.
Putting your protagonist front and center places him or her above everyone (and everything else, including the theme). I feel that this is effective, especially for character-driven stories where the fictional characters take control. Since the characters are the ones moving your story forward, it makes perfect sense to give them credit by highlighting them in the opening line.
2. Paint A Picture Of Your Novel’s Setting
If your scenes frequently occur at a certain place or if your novel takes place in an imaginary world, you can paint a picture of that in the first sentence!
This is especially so if you’ve conducted in-depth research on the place or spent a lot of time on worldbuilding. Don’t let that effort go to waste. Use sensory details: describe what your readers will see, smell, hear, taste and touch if they step into this place.
The way you describe this setting will help you influence the novel’s tone and mood. Whether it’s an ominous dystopian world or a backdrop to promising reforms.
It doesn’t matter whether the setting is large or small. Rather than the scale of the setting, I think it’s better to focus on the 3 components of a setting:
You don’t have to squeeze in all of them in the first sentence. Instead, pick something that stands out or is unique to the setting and state it in your opening line.
3. Introduce The Theme Of Your Story
You can also start by introducing the theme of your story.
A theme is the central topic or underlying meaning that an author explores in the book. It could be a moral or message. In more complex stories, the theme might explore fundamental aspects of society or humanity or even human nature on a universal level. Simply put, a theme is the story’s deeper meaning and how the story approaches this idea.
This is usually conveyed using characters, setting, dialogue, plot, conflict, word choice or a combination of all these literary devices. Do brainstorm ways on how you can convey the central theme in a single sentence.
Here are some common themes:
- Good vs Evil
- Courage & Perseverance
Let’s take the opening line of Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This establishes the novel’s theme of dysfunctional families.
4. Surprise Your Readers: Arouse Interest, Spark Curiosity & Intrigue Them
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
I’m sure you’ve heard of this famous opening sentence from Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. In this first line, readers will immediately realize that something is unusual about the world of the novel (clocks don’t strike thirteen; they strike twelve then start over at one). In addition, the number thirteen has ominous connotations and thus, sets a foreboding and eerie tone right from the start. It also sends a haunting message that in this dystopian future, nothing is certain or fixed and that time itself can be manipulated when the government has toppled God.
This is a great example of hooking readers by introducing a strange or uncanny detail right from the beginning. It effectively makes the readers interested and curious.
For this opening line, you can think of a thing, idea or process that is normal and twist it around. Or if there’s something unusual in your fictional world, you can highlight it in the first sentence. You can also begin by letting your protagonist say or do something weird. The key is to catch your readers off guard by writing something they would never expect.
5. Start In Medias Res
“In medias res” literally translates to “into the middle of things” or “in the midst of things” in Latin.
This popular literary device is essentially about jumping right into the story and plunging into the critical moment or crucial situation. It could be a conflict or action scene.
There are some benefits of starting your novel this way:
- Engage your readers & arrest their attention immediately
- Make your readers eager to discover the answers (how & why this happened)
- Leave your readers wanting more
Do bear in mind the following tips if you plan to incorporate this
- Begin with the middle: Choose a climactic moment, conflict, argument, fight, revelation—anything that denotes some chain of events have occurred in this world leading up to the pivotal moment.
- Inject your backstory: Precisely because the story starts in the middle, your readers will need to be caught up on who these characters are and what is happening. Reveal this relevant information via flashbacks, switches in POV, dialogue and more. Do note to provide enough information for readers to understand the current situation (avoid info-dumping!)
- Make it urgent: The scene that you open with should be a crucial, high-stakes moment for the protagonist and integral to the plot. Readers should be on the edge of their seats and eager to know if it’s all going to work out as the scene unfolds.
6. Create Tension Right From The Start
Tension is the most effective way to elicit an emotional response in your readers. It spellbinds them and leaves them breathless, on the edge of their seats and biting their nails in anticipation for what will happen next.
Let’s look at an example from Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid: “That night, when Mrs. Chamberlain called, Emira could only piece together the words “…take Briar somewhere…” and “…pay you double.””
Without knowing the context of the situation, the tension is already baked in. Readers are immediately greeted with a choppy phone conversation where the only things you hear are that Briar needs to be taken somewhere—and that clearly it’s a special assignment because Emira is being offered double pay.
There are many ways to build tension
- Use shorter words
- Write shorter sentences
- Withhold information by only revealing bits of it
- Ticking clock
- Plot twist
7. Establish Conflict & Kick Off The Story
You might have noticed that I mentioned conflict quite a few times previously. Conflict, the clash between two opposing forces, is another way to kick start your novel.
Conflict drives the plot forward, whether it’s about a character at odds with another character, herself, society or the world. There are 3 types of conflicts: external, internal and moral conflicts. Conflicts reveal opposing beliefs and entertain readers by creating relatable contexts. There are 2 reasons to create conflict
- Provide purpose: Give your story direction, motion and purpose. Without it, a story would drift along with no beginning, middle or end.
- Help character development: When a character goes up against an opposing force, their actions and emotions reveal their character traits. This creates compelling characters that are multi-dimensional and more relatable to the readers.
However, getting the conflict across in a single sentence is no easy task. It takes time to build a conflict.
Here’s the first line of Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead: “The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no.”
You can feel the conflict already where Cora said no to running north. Note the word “first” in the opening sentence. This assumes that Cora will say yes later on.
8. Come Full Circle: Ending As Beginning
A full circle ending is where readers are shown the ending at the beginning of the story. It could foreshadow the protagonist’s death or unhappy future etc. And from this sentence onwards, the writer shows how the protagonist gets there.
Presenting the ending as the beginning can be a hit and miss. It needs to be done right because by beginning with a perceived ending, you are essentially giving away the final twist. You also risk eliminating all tension by telling the readers how everything ended up.
Here’s how Gabriel García Márquez did it in One Hundred Years Of Solitude: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
The end of Colonel Aureliano Buendía is revealed in the opening line. Conflict is also guaranteed since he ended up in front of a firing squad. This threat of the protagonist’s imminent death paints the world in the story as a place fraught with peril. There’s tension too because it raises many questions: What happens? Is there hope for the Colonel? Is he a bad guy or just in the wrong place at the wrong time? There are other questions too: What’s with that afternoon with his father? What does it mean to “discover ice”?
The darkness from the first half of the sentence is juxtaposed against a sense of wonder in the second half. Readers get a glimpse of the protagonist’s childhood memory, of discovering ice. We all know what ice is; it’s utterly familiar. So it begs the question: In what kind of setting would ice be magical?
This opening line works wonders because it’s a brilliant combination of so many successful tactics, all rolled into one.
The key to this is that you must already have the ending in your mind. Then, craft your chapters and scenes towards this ending.
Now It’s Your Turn
Do you use any of the above techniques when crafting your opening sentence? What other techniques do you use? How was your experience?
If you’re just getting started on planning your novel, consider getting printables from Etsy which includes word count trackers, novel outlines, character profiles, worldbuilding basics and more.
For more book publishing and marketing tips, consider joining classes like How To Write And Publish An eBook and Sell Your First 1000 Books. Or watch streaming broadcasts of free online classes at CreativeLive! You can also join online courses at Fiverr Learn~