The Hook: First Sentences Are Not Easy For a Reason
Guest blogger Natasha Guadalupe writes about the importance of first sentences and how to craft them.
The thin black line at the top of your computer screen silently blinks, nudging you to write, a sentence, a word, something—anything! That cursor, ticking metronome; the once benign prompt becomes an irritating reminder of how lost you really might be about how to start your story.
The first line of a story will be one of the hardest parts to craft. It sets the tone and develops the mood and pace of your book. It will clearly indicate your skill as writer. It will even determine your story’s worthiness of being read.
The beginning must pose a question of sufficient interest that readers read on in search of an answer. – Fred Stenson, Writer
The truth is no one ever judges a book by its cover; they judge it by its first line. A Creative Writing teacher explained her method of book selection. She opens it to the first page and scans the first line. If in those few seconds it doesn’t grab her, she walks away from it completely. She’s not alone. Most publishers take only 20 seconds to read the first paragraph of your story before they decide to either dump or read on through the next five pages. Your story is riding on that first sentence; make it memorable.
The primary role of your first sentence and paragraph should be to pique your reader’s interest either through the introduction of your protagonist via their name, behavior or physical description. You could provide insight into the story’s premise by making note of the conflict your character is facing. The mood is created by speaking of the time or description of the setting. In the end, you are helping the reader learn about the world they will be entering.
Queen of Run-on Sentences
When I first started my novel, there were two things I knew with clarity: how the story should begin and how it should end. At first, the task and responsibility of the first sentence was difficult for me to grasp. I knew I wanted the first sentence to convey cherished love, the innocence of a young boy on the cusp of adulthood, loneliness, a sense of time passing, urgency and sacrifice. My first reaction was to jam everything into one long monster run-on of a sentence. Staring at the page, I was heart broken. All of the words seemed to all collapse onto themselves. I had no first sentence, and there I stood stuck.
A good first line should be as good as your favorite film quote. Something that even when taken out of context has power – the power to make someone laugh, think, gasp or grimace. – Christopher Jackson
Being a huge movie buff, this really hit home for me. I finally understood the importance and strength the first line needed to have. Then there was the issue of how to go about it.
It’s All in the Name
This is when the writer uses a character’s name to pique interest in the start of the story. Descriptiveness of names rooted in something real can often give an inquisitive reader insight about the type of person the protagonist is or what will happen to them.
- “Call me Ishmael.” – Moby-Dick, Herman Melville
- “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” – Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
Who They Are. What They Did. How They Look.
This is when the writer uses the description of a character’s behavior, appearance or action to drive interest of wanting to find out more.
- “There are plenty would call her a slut for it.” -Tender Morsels, Margo Lanagan
- “I am an invisible man.” – Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
- “All children, except one, grow up.” – Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie
- “Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die.” – Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk
What’s The Big Secret? Insight To The Storyline
This is when the narrator or character draws the reader in by establishing instant conflict in the story. They creatively don’t tell you what happened or what’s going to happen but skillfully let you know something did or is going to happen.
- “You better not never tell nobody but God.” – The Color Purple, Alice Walker
- “If I could tell you this in a single sitting, then you might believe all of it, even the strangest part.” – The Limits of Enchantments, Graham Joyce
- “This is what happened.” – The Mist, Stephen King
It’s Latin for “in the middle of things” and refers to the story-telling device of starting a narrative not at the beginning but during a dramatic scene. The advantage of starting a story in the middle or even at the end and then doubling back to the same point is the ability to hook the audience immediately without any exposition, plopping him down right in the middle of the action.
- “Who’s there?” – Hamlet, William Shakespeare
- “They shoot the white girl first.” – Paradise, Toni Morrison
This is when setting is used to set the mood and pace of the story instantly. It also helps orient the reader as to the time, place and atmosphere they will be reading about.
- “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” – The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
- “When he woke in the woods in the dark and cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.” – The Road, Cormac McCarthy
To write my first sentence. I took a step back and spent time thinking about what sensory experience I wanted the reader to experience; where was I going to drop or push them into? I needed to decide how much they were allowed to see through the crack I made for them to peer at the novel. I worked hard for my first sentence. Damn hard. Two months later I completed my first chapter and a pretty good first sentence.
In the end, don’t get stuck on trying to write the first sentence. I know. I know. I Just told you that the first sentence is pivotal to the whole story, and it is. Here’s the rub, if you let it, it can become one of many excuses you create to not move forward and write.
Here are some ideas on how to help get you to a good first line.
- Have a clear understanding of your story, a clear beginning middle and a clear end.
- Write other sections of the story so that you become clear about your pacing, intent or the fleshing out of characters.
- Write a first sentence that says everything you want to say. I mean EVERYTHING. Let it get as long, fat, bulky and long-winded as you need. Put the sentence away for a week. Come back to it and edit that sentence into seven words. You will run into problems doing this. Press on trying. After getting to the seven-word sentence, you may not like what you’ve said, but you will be one step closer to what you mean.
- Keep trying.
Natasha Guadalupe is a passionate writer and blogger. Her blog, My Novel Writing Adventures, contains her thoughts on writing. Through her writing, Natasha hopes to spark dialogue and inspire new and seasoned writers alike. She is dedicated to telling diverse stories about the human condition. Professionally, she has more than 12 years experience as a grant writer and non-profit fundraiser.Currently at work on her first novel, Natasha resides in New York.