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[Novel]The Importance of the Opening Sentence?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Xaysai, May 13, 2013.

  1. Xaysai

    Xaysai Inkling

    I've been thinking a lot about this lately.

    I know the general consensus on these forums (and it seems mostly everywhere), is that the first sentence needs to "hook" the reader, and I agree that intellectually it makes perfect sense.

    However, when I consider my shopping habits, the book cover gets me interested (yes, I know - I am that shallow), and then I flip to the middle of a it to browse because the beginnings of books are generally (at least for my short attention span), very slow....

    Also, considering so many books in the fantasy genre contain prologues which are less than exciting, I'm left wondering exactly how important that first sentence is to a novel?

    For a short story, I can certainly see "hooking" a reader because the expectation is that a lot needs to happen in a very short time, but wouldn't the general consensus be that novels ramp up as the plot moves along?

    Looking back through some of my favorite novels, I would say that most of them have a lackluster first sentence. Even my all-time favorite intro to a book (Name of the Wind) is my favorite not because it "hooked me" from the standpoint of it being interesting or intriguing, but because it is so beautifully written.

    I would also argue that one of the most addicting qualities of Name of the Wind is the last sentence in every chapter, which is usually designed to keep up up at 2am flipping pages because I can't leave on the note he ends them on.

    I guess you could argue that there is no harm into placing a great deal of effort into that first sentence for those people who are "first sentence browsers", but what happens to our readers when we place such a great deal of emphasis on an amazing first sentence, and the rest of the book doesn't live up to the expectation we've set with our laser-like focus on the first ~10-20 words?

  2. Telcontar

    Telcontar Staff Moderator

    Hrm. I'd hardly say that the first sentence needs to hook the reader. Great if it does, sure, but that's a lot of pressure to put on, as you say, the first 10-20 words.

    Certainly, you want to draw the reader in as quickly as possible, but I think for the vast majority of books the importance of the opening sentence is paltry compared to the importance of the opening few pages, or the first thousand words. I can think of a few books in which the opening sentence is distinctive, but the ones I remember best I remember largely because the rest of the book was great, not because that sentence was so great in and of itself.

    Readers have different thresholds for when they'll give up on a book - some won't ever stop reading a book they've started no matter how much they hate it. Others will decide to abandon it much faster. I sincerely doubt that any readers make their decision based on the very first sentence, though (barring ridiculous circumstances like being riddled with typos, that is).
    Jabrosky likes this.
  3. psychotick

    psychotick Auror


    My view is that every little bit helps in the sale of the book, starting with the cover. And yes I too am that shallow and proud of it. I think most of us are. The first sentence is if it grabs your attention the next part of the sales machine, after the blurb of course, and then the first few pages etc. But it would be a stunning first sentence if in and of itself it sold the book. I think you really have to pay attention to it all.

    Cheers, Greg.
  4. wordwalker

    wordwalker Auror

    Agreed, readers have different thresholds; there are also plenty like Xaysai who go to the middle instead so the start means even less.

    I wouldn't say readers make their decision based on the first sentence, but it's the best way to get them to read the second one, and the page or two after that. If you want one thing to put extra effort into --when there are no simple rules for how much more effort, or who it'll work best with-- it's certainly the most reliable bet.

    Ideally, this might figure into the overall flow of your book and even your marketing strategy. If the tale's inherently slow to build momentum, it might be more important to find a line and a page that give an early glimpse at the coolest stuff to come, even if it's in arbitrary juicy-dialog form-- and if you can't make a patch like that work, it could be a reason to instead work harder at convincing serious publishers, reviewers, and other promotion avenues that can build a sense of "Keep reading, you'll love it." Or if the opening's more flashy, a flashy first line might be natural, and maybe you want to publicize it by getting that line and the next pages in front of as many eyes as possible.
  5. JSDR

    JSDR Scribe

    My thoughts -

    For traditionally published books, I don't care what the cover looks like because I know it's designed to lure me into picking up the book. How much of the writer's influence does the cover have? Sometimes, it feels like a cheap way to get me to picture a character or a scene that I would much rather have thought up on my own, etc.

    For indie-pubbed books, I don't really look at covers either except to quickly identify books that may be part of a series.

    I don't care if it's stick figures drawn on notebook paper, just make sure you have the book title and your name on the front somewhere.

    The meat of your question: As a reader, I look for a spectacular first line.
    Why? Because I've read a lot of books. Why should I read a book with a mediocre first line that sounds like every other mediocre first line in every other book?

    More importantly, though, the second line must be better than the first.
    The third line must be better than the second.
    The fourth etc....
  6. Addison

    Addison Auror

    The first thing that catches my eye when I read a book's first sentence, or paragraph, is the tone. Sarcastic, funny, foreboding? If the tone leads to a conflict or a promise I can't pass up to see through, then I keep reading.

    As for first sentences, they're more like the shiny metal-or smelly bait-of the hook. The official hook is the first five pages, as that's generally how long a writer has to either hook or lose a reader. But the first sentence, or few sentences, should give the reader a nibble of the writing to follow and be good enough that they want to eat more and be pulled in.
  7. Chessie

    Chessie Guest

    I would place this responsibility on the entire first paragraph, not just the first sentence. I look at the first sentence as the hook for my own self to then flood the reader with something gripping in those first few lines.

    I agree with Addison in that the first 5 pages should invest the readers enough to keep going.

    I tend to overlook the covers. What matters is the story inside.
  8. Addison

    Addison Auror

    I don't really look at the covers, especially for current YA.
    One, YA covers, the ones I've seen anyway, are more fitting for fashion magazines or pop art. They either show squiggles, swirls and the title or some boy or girl in some position with no relevance to anything.
    Two, for all books, they often depict a scene which is not in the book but is so cool the reader picks it up just to read to that scene. That's cheating.

    I've only come across few exceptions, covers which are true and appealing. Just like their first five pages.
  9. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

    I've read before somewhere that agents tend to only read the first 250 words of a manuscript, because that's all the time you as a writer has to catch your reader's attention. If you don't catch the reader in those first 250, then you don't catch them at all. I'm in the camp that says the first sentence, and the 250 words following, should definitely be very carefully thought out and crafted, as it needs to accomplish several things at once. First, you want to raise questions that the reader is interested in answering. You want to engage and intrigue them - this is paramount. Second, you need to set your tone, your POV and establish your voice. This establishes the reader's expectations for the rest of the book. Third, you're inviting your reader into your world, so you are immediately describing the first tantalizing hints of where we are. Is it a castle? A desert? A flood plain on an alien world? Writing speculative fiction, this is a trickier bit of writing for us than for other genres, but it is one we have to nail out the gate. Fewer things will get a reader to close a book than confusion, and as we know the goal of any writer is to get the reader to keep reading.

    Of course, it goes without saying that your writing for the rest of the work needs to fulfill that promise you make with your first 250 words. If it doesn't, you still lose the reader. I actually had an experience with this a few weeks ago, where I picked up a book that started strong. First 250 were good, so I got it. About 4 chapters in, I realized that the MC was a vapid nitwit, her romantic entanglements had to be total wish-fulfillment on the writer's part as they were completely improbable - 3 majorly hot FBI agents all chasing after the same intern in the first 4 chapters? Seriously??? Thank goodness I checked it out from the library and didn't spend any of my amazingly limited reading budget on it, or I would have been seriously miffed. Plus, the chances of me ever reading anything by that author are pretty much nil.

    And yes, I always look at book covers and blurbs. A good cover may not sell me on the book, but a bad one will always put me off. After all, if the author/publisher put so little effort into the window dressing, what must the rest of the house look like? And blurbs are like little movie previews. I love movie previews, and will totally make a snap decision about whether or not to see a movie based on the preview. Shallow? Yeah. But, that's marketing. And marketing is what puts our books into our initial reader's hands.

    Know what puts them into the hands of readers further down the road? Word-of-mouth.
    Last edited: May 13, 2013
    Ronald T. likes this.
  10. SeverinR

    SeverinR Vala

    I think it depends on the size of the work,
    You have to "hook" the reader quickly. In a short story you have limited space to prolong the hook.
    But in a large book, you can delay the hook a little.

    1st line, 1st paragraph, 1st page, the first chapter might be to long.
    You truly must control the reader before the first chapter is done or they will probably find something else to do.
  11. Alexandra

    Alexandra Closed Account

    The best editor I've had the pleasure to work with put the importance of the opening sentence into context. If you're writing a newspaper/magazine story or column the opening sentence is very important; you want to hook your reader before she/he wanders off to the next story or ad, or tosses the publication aside. I suppose if you're writing for the web you want to hook your reader before she clicks away.

    Readers of books, on the other hand, are usually willing to invest more time and effort in their choices and will read beyond a lackluster opening, provided the author gives them a reason to do so—something more substantial than a snappy opening sentence.
    Ronald T. likes this.
  12. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    For me the cover and the blurb is what gets me to open the book. After that, they have a paragraph to a page to hook me. It doesn't have to wow me, it just has to convince me there's something interesting going on.
  13. PaulineMRoss

    PaulineMRoss Inkling

    I can't imagine many people judge a book solely on the basis of the first sentence. I mean, that's a miniscule proportion of the entire book, it's like buying a car after examining one wheel nut. Even the first paragraph - I would say it takes several pages to judge the tone of a book, and whether it's going to work for that particular reader, especially with fantasy which typically starts slow.

    I looked up the last 7 books I bought without having a recommendation or prior author experience to go on, and only one hooked me in the first paragraph. Three more were in the first chapter, but several pages in. One was way down in the fourth chapter. Even then, I usually read the whole of the Amazon sample before I shell out any money.

    Because I review everything I read, whether I like it or not, and I hate to give negative reviews, I take a lot of care when choosing. Even then, it's possible to be sucked in. One book had a terrific opening chapter - imaginative, clever, intriguing, the works. After that the book was mostly ho-hum, before imploding in a morass of improbabilities at the end. So a good opening isn't necessarily indicative of a good book (this is particularly true of murder mysteries, where the ending is critical).

    But it's not just the lack of a hook that puts me off. What usually happens is that I trip over something early on that raises a big red flag, a negative that tells me the book's not for me. For example: any typos, punctuation and/or grammatical errors; or anything trite (an orphaned farm boy; any teenager discovering unexpected powers; street urchins picking pockets; flashing eyes/long auburn locks/chiseled jaws/muscular chests; dramatic opening scene that then segues into flashback; an explosion/battle/monster upfront; opening scene in a tavern; etc; etc). It takes skillful writing to take such hackneyed tropes and make something interesting out of them. [Of course, this is just me; lots of people love the familiar.]
    Jamber likes this.
  14. KRHolbrook

    KRHolbrook Scribe

    Normally when I go looking for a book, the cover first catches my eye. If the cover art doesn't catch my eye, then it's the title of the novel that does. After I pick the book up, I'll look at the blurb on the back. If that catches my attention enough, I'll usually buy it right then. There are times though that I'll open it up to the first page, and if it's not the first sentence that's hooking me, it better be the first paragraph, because it's at that point where I'll be choosing whether to actually buy the book or set it back down and look for another.

    So yeah, to me, first sentences are important and should be able to hook the reader into continuing reading. That or the first paragraph. Or first page. I just don't want to waste my time skimming to see an interesting part. Sometimes it's not what the first sentence is talking, about, but the style of it, as someone else had stated. The tone. I like creepy, I like humor.

    Some of the first sentences of books I've read that didn't have much of a hook would be those of famous authors who don't really need a real attention-grabbing first line anymore.
  15. LadyKatina

    LadyKatina Dreamer

    I admit that the cover is the first "filter" when I'm looking for a book, whether it's a traditionally published book or an ebook.

    After that, the next filter is the blurb. Does it sound like a book I'd like? There are certain keywords and phrases, and I'm not sure I could even tell you what they are, that make my ears perk up in a blurb.

    If the cover catches my eye, and the blurb doesn't turn me off, then if it's a paperback--I flip to the middle and read a random bit. If it's an ebook, I download the sample (which is generally at the beginning). I give the author a paragraph to a page to grab me.

    Here is where I duck my head in shame, and admit that for a lot of paperbacks, I'll also flip to the end. Yes, I spoil the ending for myself. But if I'm going to invest my time in a book that I'm worried might have a disappointing ending, I like that insurance.

    Generally, I'm looking for tone, style and certain story elements, which are impossible to pull out of a single sentence, IMO. And by the time I get to the first sentence, I've already had to get past the cover and blurb.
  16. Addison

    Addison Auror

    The first five pages should do the same as the pitch; it should tell readers who, what, where and why they should care.

    Covers can help if they're done right. Not just pretty, but covers should show something about the book. A character (good or evil), an important setting or a snap shot of a scene. But they should be true, not a deleted scene.

    The back cover, or inside flap, should do the same.
  17. Snowpoint

    Snowpoint Sage

    There are some books, or one, that has forced me to put the book down immediately. But, that was a rare exception to the rule. Normally, the book jacket gives you a basic idea of what will happen in the book. If I'm hooked by the concept, I WANT to see the concept play out. If, for whatever reason, I believe the author will fail the concept, I might put the book down.

    The first book the the Dresden Files is not amazing, but the narrative voice that is present throughout the series starts strong in the first chapter. The mood is established in the second chapter at the crime scene, when Harry vomits in reaction to what he sees. The first book is not amazing, but Chapter One and Two act as a one-two-punch that drives you to the end of the novel.

    There are some Desden novel with mind-blowing fist sentances, but I bet you $1,000 that was the last thing to be written.
  18. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

    I won't take that bet - you're probably right. One of my favorite all-time opening lines is from Blood Rites.

    This is followed by one of the funniest opening 250 words I've ever read, which basically has the hero fleeing with a heavy box of puppies from big winged monkeys flinging flaming monkey poo at him. I just love that!

    Personally, I have always wanted to start a story with the line, "At first we thought we could control the fire..." but I just can't find the right one for it, yet.
  19. tlbodine

    tlbodine Troubadour

    The back cover copy/blurb is probably the single most important factor for me in whether I'll pick up a book or keep with it. Like, if the plot description sounds *really cool*, but the book starts off slow, I'll hold out for a little bit to see if it starts to pick up. If the blurb sounds "eh," I'll probably give the book a page or two.

    I can't tell within the first page if I'll necessarily *like* a book, but I can tell whether or not the writing is competent. That competence goes deeper than grammatical skill or lack of typos or whatever. It's about voice, characterization, storytelling -- if I'm sucked into the story by the end of the first page, I'll keep reading. If I'm very aware that I'm reading a book when I get to the end of the first page, I'm less likely to keep reading.

    So, a first sentence isn't make-it-or-break-it, but it is often a sign of truly stellar writing.
  20. Addison

    Addison Auror

    I believe Roald Dahl has a quote for this sort of thing. He said, "I don't care if a reader likes a book so long as they finish it." And I feel the same way. If a reader can read the story, start to finish, then I'm good. Whether they like it or not is up to them.

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