Donna Everhart

Those Critical First Sentences

I love to read the first sentence of a book I’m about to buy.  I mean, I do the other usual things, like reading the back of it to get the basic premise of the story, or the inside flap.  And then, I might randomly flip to the middle pages, see how the words “look”, is there lots of dialogue, too much or just right, etc.

But, first sentences are what usually make my mind up about the purchase.  For me, they immediately give me the sense of the story and how it will flow.  For those of us who read all the time, we know right away from that one sentence whether or not we’ll like the book.   For instance, I’ve picked up books, looked at their covers, read the flap or the back, and then read the first sentence only to put it down and decide against it.

When writing a novel, first sentences are critical to drawing a reader in, so much so, you can easily find web sites all about them.  Like this one.  They’ve chosen what they view as the “100 Best First Lines”:

Or this one, that helps you figure out how to write that “killer opener”:

Here are a few examples of first sentences that came from some of my favorite books:

1)  After dark the rain began to fall again, but he had already made up his mind to go and anyway it had been raining for weeks.  (THE STORY OF EDGAR SAWTELLE, David Wroblewski)

2)  Henry and I dug the hole seven feet deep.  (MUDBOUND, Hillary Jordan)

3)  I’ve been called Bone all my life, but my name’s Ruth Anne.  (BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA, Dorothy Allison)

4)  When I was little, I would think of ways to kill my Daddy.  (ELLEN FOSTER, Kaye Gibbons)

5)  My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie.  (LOVELY BONES, Alice Sebold)

In all of these, I had a distinct image in my mind of the protagonist – unless the book was written from multiple viewpoints (like numbers 1 and 2), but still, they were distinctive and made me want to keep reading to see what they would say next.

I’ve read (often) that the opening sentence has to hook a reader and that even though the first pages are critical, the first sentence is even more so.  In some ways, I wished I hadn’t learned that.  Why?  Because I’m such a perfectionist.  When you have the daunting task in front of you to write a WHOLE book, not just that one sentence, yet you can’t break away from tweaking the darn thing over and over, well, it can take a long time to get a book done.  The first sentence is the thing I come back to the most.  With my first novel, I wished I’d kept track of how many times I changed it.  I bet it would have filled up all the pages that eventually held the entire story.  Same with the second one.  I’m still finishing that book, but I’m already obsessing about that darn sentence!

When I read first sentences like the ones above, all I can do is question the strength of the ones I’ve written.  Below is the first sentence of my first book:

My diary was my best friend until I gave it up as key evidence against Uncle Ray.

This is the sentence in my second book:

I was going to be in a heap a trouble if I got caught. 

Feel free to drop me a comment and tell me what you think.  Is one stronger than the other?  Are they equal?  Most importantly, would you want to keep reading?

5 thoughts on “Those Critical First Sentences”

  1. The opening sentence is tricky, because you not only have to set the tone for the entire book, but you have to catch the reader at the right time, in the right frame of mind.

    One day, a reader might want “Kisses always tasted sweetest in November,” while the next day, they might get hooked by “…and that was how 2,000 bees ended up stinging my dog’s butt.”

    The challenge of assigning one line to the task of acting as your book’s unofficial “welcoming party” is never going to be easy, but it should be an experience authors embrace rather than fear.


    1. Totally agree! I think that’s why I obsess about it…I just read your answers to the infamous 11 questions. You are a hoot!


  2. Yeah, Basrard is a hell of a book. I am no one to judge writing but this seems very powerful. Allison writes much stronger than Julia Oliver in Buttermilk Sky. My only complaint is that the book is so dark. In Buttermilk I had a sense that Callie would be fine. In Bastard I don’t feel things will be better. Bone will survive, will endure, but she will continue to flirt with disaster. Allison ixs the better writer. She is more descriptive and more about character. Anyone interested in developing their ability to write character should study these two books. It has been a great experience reading those two. As for openers the first sentence in Bastard is similar to “Call me Ishmael.” I don’t know that those are great. Elmore Leonard says just when we are flexing our writer muscles, crafting something spectacular, we are usually screwing up. I think either of your sentences is great. I like the first better if you leave “key” out. Cya.

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