The importance of first sentences
By David Griffin Brown
Reading is work, and no one wants to do work.
To convince a literary agent or a reader browsing in a bookstore that your story is worth the effort, you must quickly offer a prize that offsets the labour of paying attention and turning pages.
That prize, in a word, is immersion.
When you sink a reader into another time and place, such that they forget about the words on the page, you have succeeded in establishing immersion. If you can do that with the first sentence, you’re off to a sprinting start.
Does your first sentence need to be a pinnacle of high poetry? Maybe—but only if that suits the rest of your narrative. Even still, you might as well make your first sentence the best it can be.
Ideally, first sentences convey voice.
Voice is ineffable. But it's easy to see, usually in the first paragraph. —Andy Ross, literary agent
When people talk about a strong narrative voice, they mean that the narrator transcends the prose in a way that the reader can sense a distinct person behind the words, and even hear them speaking.
An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this. —Stephen King (in an interview with The Atlantic)
An opening sentence should forecast the novel.
The scope of this forecast can be wide or narrow, but in some way should hint at the novel's themes and/or trajectory. Consider some of these famous first lines:
Call me Ishmael. —Moby Dick by Herman Melville
While this opening doesn’t tip me off that we’re about to go whale hunting, it establishes that the narrator might be other than he seems, that his true or full identity may not matter to the story itself, and that we can expect a fair amount of “reader address” (the narrator speaking directly to the reader).
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. —One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
This is one of my favourite opening lines. We know immediately that the novel will encompass generations. We can also gather that this family will be central to the narrative, and that this narrator is omniscient and reflective—the full scope of this timeline and tale is within his grasp.
All children, except one, grow up. —Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
What else needs to be said? This is clearly a great starting point—a synthesis of the novel’s premise.
I have never begun a novel with more misgiving. —The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham
The Razor’s Edge is very character-driven; it’s all voice and personality. This opening line immediately tells us that the narrator is a novelist, that he’s wary about his creative endeavour, and we might also surmise that the novel will be at least somewhat autobiographical.
Sink your readers into another time and place
Your opening sentence doesn’t need to go down in history for its wit and charm, but it should still entice readers into your liminal landscape where they may begin to engage with the characters and story.
A great first sentence usually comes last
Because you don't necessarily know the final plot trajectory and themes of your work in progress, you aren't in a great position to judge your first sentence, first paragraph, and first chapter until you've finished writing the manuscript. So don't worry if an amazing opening sentence doesn't fall into your lap right away. Get to know the story and characters in depth. Fine tune your structure. When your manuscript is finally standing up on its own, you will be ready to give your first sentence full consideration.
David Griffin Brown is an award-winning short fiction writer and co-author of Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. He holds a BA in anthropology from UVic and an MFA in creative writing from UBC, and his writing has been published in literary magazines such as the Malahat Review and Grain. In 2022, he was the recipient of a New Artist grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. David founded Darling Axe Editing in 2018, and as part of his Book Broker interview series, he has compiled querying advice from over 100 literary agents. He lives in Victoria, Canada, on the traditional territory of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations.