There is nothing more important in the first chapter of your book than hooking the reader from Page 1, Sentence 1. If you can keep them reading past the first sentence, half your battle is over. They’ve committed to your story.
But how do you get there? There are so many different ways to start a story, but some of them could actually kill the reader’s interest. The last thing any writer wants to do is turn a reader off to their story! Here are some do’s and don’t’s for you to consider when first putting pen to paper.
First Sentence DOs
- Read several first sentences from your favorite books to get a feel for what’s been done right
- Practice writing out a whole list of first sentences and test them out on beta readers to find the best one
- Make the sentence evoke a question in the reader – Who is this character? What does this mysterious letter contain? Why are they talking about murder?
- Make it exciting, funny, or shocking – something that will grab the reader’s attention
- Reflect the narrator’s or main character’s voice as accurately as possible
- Make it active and character-centered – something they are doing/thinking/sensing, or something that is said/done to them.
First Sentence DON’Ts
- Start with a character introduction that breaks the fourth wall. Ex: “Hi! My name is Susie Jones, and this is the story of how I ______.”
- Use onomatopoeia. Ex: “BANG! The door slammed open.”
- Begin with describing a character’s physical appearance. Ex: “Her long, golden locks flowed in the breeze, glittering in the evening sun.”
- Begin with over-describing the setting down to the most minute, insignificant detail.
- Write something purely for shock value, that has nothing to do with the actual story.
To read my favorite list of first sentence/opening scene advice from literary agents, click here.
Opening Scene DOs
- Open at, or as close to as possible, the inciting incident
- Drop the reader directly into the scene so they’re immediately in the action
- Intentionally implement foreshadowing (but make sure it’s not obvious)
- Introduce important characters
- Set the setting (create an authentic world)
- Establish voice
Opening Scene DON’Ts
- Use backstory or flashbacks to explain things to the reader. Instead, act like your reader already knows what the characters know. This adds an air of intrigue. Slowly throughout the story you can reveal a character’s past, but never in the opening scene
- Use prologues. I’m guilty of this (because I personally love prologues), but they’re currently considered a major literary faux pas
- Delay the action. Get to the inciting incident ASAP!
- Fill the scene with lots of inner monologue or prose
- Make it overdramatic or trite
And, like any writing advice, once you know the rules, you can break them.
So if you’ve written a first sentence or opening scene that’s full of DON’Ts, but feel like it’s still stinkin’ awesome, then go ahead and use it. Just be sure to test it out with readers to get a feel for what they like best. These aren’t hard & fast rules, but more like guidelines to write within the boundaries of. The best part about first sentences & opening scenes is that there are endless ways to tackle them. You can be as creative or as textbook as you want. There is no “right” or “wrong” here.
Do me a favor, and comment with some test first sentences. I’d love to give you feedback on them, and let other writers weigh in on them. Feel free to try out several to see which one most people like best. Let’s get this writing community going!
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