You Had Me at Hello
The first sentence of your book is your first hello-wave to an agent or reader. It must be as kickass as you can make it. Your opening sentence is all about drawing readers in. It’s about creating intrigue and questions in the mind of the reader. It’s your job to make them want to continue perusing your words to find out what your story is all about, to figure out what’s going to happen.
Let’s set the tone to clarify exactly what I’m talking about by taking a gander at some famous first lines that need no more or no less than precisely what they contain:
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
George Orwell, 1984
Fourteen simple words carry great weight in an easy light way. Immediate attention focuses on what it means for a clock to strike thirteen. Crazy, right? Clocks are based on a system of twelve. Is the author possibly talking about military time or something deeper? Perhaps something sinister. And notice the word, clock is plural not singular. So, are all the clocks going haywire or is Orwell informing readers that in this dystopian fictional world, clocks striking thirteen is commonplace? It begs to question what other abnormalities are considered normal in 1984? Are truths lies in his fictional culture, and lies truths?
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Twenty-plus words-in and the reader understands the narrator is talking about a time from his/her youth where he/she was impressionable. We don’t yet know if the narrator is male or female, or what that piece of advice was, but we do know the character has been thinking about it and perhaps considering it from different angles. What happened that caused the character to ponder his father’s advice over and over? Was it good advice or bad? From the tone gleaned in the sentence, it echoes a feeling of solid, positive advice, but we are not sure yet. That opening leads the reader to want to find out who the narrator is, why he/she held on to their father’s advice, and what life events brought the character to this point.
I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.
Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle
Written in first person, this magnificent opening sentence of I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.
Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle It’s haunting. It’s odd. It’s alluring. Who is sitting in the sink and why? People don’t commonly sit in kitchen sinks. What is happening around this character while he/she sits in the sink? What is this character writing about? Inquiring minds want to know. I want to read more. I must read more. We don’t yet know the age or gender of the narrator but that doesn’t seem to matter. We’re drawn in by this succinct yet titillating headline.
Here's the Skinny
You want readers to take the leap from your key attention-grabbing sentence, straight to your intro and beyond. You want their eyes glued to your pages until the end. You want them to know your opener is a glimpse of wonderous and exciting things to come.
Invite the reader in.
Writing in the kitchen sink sounds weird at first and says little about the actual story, I Capture the Castle. It also sounds bizarrely cozy. The narrator is welcoming the reader. Come sit with me in the kitchen sink and read what I’m writing. The reader is compelled to read further about this peculiarity.
This is the moment to take everything you know about your story and make a broad, appealing pitch within the first sentence.
Fatherly advice can be wide-ranging. In The Great Gatsby beginning, the reader has no clue what the advice is or if there is more than one piece of advice. The reader only knows there is “some advice.” The line is vague, but the reader guesses the protagonist is going to lead them down a path where that advice will come in handy. They will likely read the next sentences, paragraphs, and chapters to find out.
Create curiosity. Write something shocking, mysterious, or oddball-ish. Give the reader a nugget to chew on that has them saying, (in the words of my son) “Wait . . . what?”
Clocks on a cold, April day strike thirteen. We've established that George Orwell's opener in 1984, doesn’t make sense. The reader, however is oddly drawn into the mysterious phenomenon and will likely feel obligated to see what else is out of place, not right, and perhaps turned upside-down in this world.
There’s a lot riding on that first sentence, so pull out all the stops and make it as outstanding as you can!