I took a workshop with Donald Maass where he did a brilliant exercise. He had each participant read their first sentence of their manuscript to the class. That was it, just the first sentence. Then he asked the class to vote.
“If you were in a bookstore,” he asked the class, “And you opened up her book and read this sentence, how many of you would continue reading?”
And we’d vote. Sometimes, many hands raised. Sometimes, just a few. The student whose sentence it was could look around and see how many hands were in the air. It taught me a lot about the power of that first sentence. You don’t want to waste precious real estate with words that fail to either set the tone, reveal character, or raise a question. Or maybe do all three. The main thing is, you want to entice the reader.
You want every hand in the room to reach for the sky – that’s when you know you’ve got a killer opening.
If you were in the back of the class, you had time to rework your first sentence before Maass got to you. And some students tried upping the stakes, thinking that heart-pounding action, adding guns, a fight, even a killing, might work. But in fact, those kinds of sentences usually left the class cold. So did sentences that were cheats, referring to something that really wasn’t the start of the story. The first words the reader sees need to be intriguing. They need to hook the reader the way a perfectly-designed, brightly feathered, customized fly hook mesmerizes and snags a prized salmon.
Here are some of my favorite first lines, many from classics. A few are YA. I’ll let you guess the titles.
- “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
- “A screaming comes across the sky.”
- “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
- “It was a pleasure to burn.”
- “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
- “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”
- “The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit.”
- “Someone was looking at me, a disturbing sensation if you’re dead.”
- “We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.”
And my personal favorite: “All children, except one, grow up.”
You’ll find many more of these on various lists. I tend to like the shorter ones, but some classic favorites are quite long. Whatever the length, the main task of the first sentence is to get the browser standing in the bookstore or scanning online to read the second one. There’s really nothing more basic. But don’t try too hard. Focus on telling the story. Get to the end of the first draft. Then, after you’ve finished an entire draft, go back. Read the first sentence and ask yourself — “If this was someone else’s book, would I vote to read on?”
Lissa Price’s debut novel STARTERS is a YA futuristic thriller published in over thirty countries. An international bestseller, Dean Koontz called STARTERS “a smart, swift, inventive, altogether gripping story.” The LA Times said it is “Dystopian sci-fi at its best,” and “Readers who have been waiting for a worthy successor to ‘The Hunger Games’ will find it here.” Nominated for a YALSA award, STARTERS was a Barnes & Noble pick of the month and is one of ten books on the Best of the Year for Teen lists from Amazon and Chapters/Indigo.
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STARTERS by Lissa Price: In the future, teens rent their bodies to seniors who want to be young again. One girl discovers her renter plans to do more than party–her body will commit murder, if her mind can’t stop it. Sixteen-year-old Callie lost her parents when the genocide spore wiped out everyone except those who were vaccinated first–the very young and very old. With no grandparents to claim Callie and her little brother, they go on the run, living as squatters, and fighting off unclaimed renegades who would kill for a cookie. Hope comes via Prime Destinations, run by a mysterious figure known only as The Old Man. He hires teens to rent their bodies to seniors, known as enders, who get to be young again. Callie’s neurochip malfunctions and she wakes up in the life of her rich renter, living in her mansion, driving her cars, even dating Blake, the grandson of a senator. It’s a fairy-tale new life . . . until she uncovers the Body Bank’s horrible plan. . . .