Great Story and Book Beginnings
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” —George Orwell, 1984
The first sentence of your book is an invitation to join the journey. When it’s written well, readers make an immediate decision to come along. When it’s not, they move on to the next.
An author might choose to keep it simple:
- “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” (Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier)
- “They shoot the white girl first.” (Toni Morrison, Paradise)
- “You better not never tell nobody but God.” (Alice Walker, The Color Purple)
Or they might elaborate:
- “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” (J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye)
- “An abandoned auto court in the San Berdoo foothills; Buzz Meeks checked in with ninety-four thousand dollars, eighteen pounds of high-grade heroin, a 10-gauge pump, a .38 special, a .45 automatic, and a switchblade he’d bought off a pachuco at the border—right before he spotted the car parked across the line: Mickey Cohen goons in an LAPD unmarked, Tijuana cops standing by to bootsack his goodies, dump his body in the San Ysidro River.” (James Ellroy, L.A. Confidential)
- “Not everybody knows how I killed old Phillip Mathers, smashing his jaw in with my spade; but first it is better to speak of my friendship with John Divney because it was he who first knocked old Mathers down by giving him a great blow in the neck with a special bicycle-pump which he manufactured himself out of a hollow iron bar.” (Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman)
Either way, a commanding first sentence uses mood, voice, and setting to full effect.
- Mood gives the reader a sense of atmosphere: slow and tranquil, fast and violent, or hesitant and unnerving.
- Voice shows how the narrator sees the world: flippant and irreverent, sad and defeated, or upbeat and optimistic.
- Setting is the where the story takes place: the past, the present, the future; reality or fantasy; a dream or a nightmare.
The sense of wonder created when these three elements are effectively combined leaves readers with questions that compel them to continue:
- Who is this character?
- What has happened, is happening, or will happen to the character?
- Why is this story important?
Consider the first sentence of The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.”
While plainly stating the where and when, the author also immediately invokes a feeling, both tantalizing and eerie, that something awful has happened. And it leaves the reader wanting more.
That’s the entire point of a first sentence, and it doesn’t have to be ridiculously dramatic; it just has to make the reader want to continue reading.
Nonfiction books are not exempt from this, and in some ways, they have even more to prove than fiction. But it is possible to craft an opening that will make readers want to pull the book off the shelf and take it to the cash register. Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air is a good example:
Straddling the top of the world, one foot in China and the other in Nepal, I cleared the ice from my oxygen mask, hunched a shoulder against the wind, and stared absently down at the vastness of Tibet.
The reader can clearly see where the narrator is both physically and mentally—and what he’s up against. But what happens next? There’s only one way to find out . . .
If you’re having trouble getting the first sentence of your manuscript just right, it helps to remember that first lines aren’t always written first. Sometimes, they take months to form. In an interview with The Atlantic, Stephen King had this to say:
When I’m starting a book, I compose in bed before I go to sleep. I will lie there in the dark and think. I’ll try to write a paragraph. An opening paragraph. And over a period of weeks and months and even years, I’ll word and reword it until I’m happy with what I’ve got. If I can get that first paragraph right, I’ll know I can do the book*.
The right opening sentence will keep readers reading—but only to a point. The rest of the story has to be there, too, and in the next Editor’s Corner, we’ll explore just what makes a great book great, including advice on plot, pace, and point of view.