8 Ways of Grabbing Your Reader from the First Sentence, Pt. 1 of 3

In which the Octopus provides an Introduction and Tips 1 and 2

The mythical first sentence; for your book, it is the phrase that launches one hundred thousand words.  For your reader, it’s almost like your book’s pick up line.  You’re trying to inspire the reader into getting into a serious relationship with your story.  This is about more than just making a good first impression.

The first sentence is sometimes your only chance to snatch up a potential reader’s interest and propel them headlong into your story.  Write a great one and your reader will dive in and not look back.  Write a bad one and, well…take a look at this:

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” — Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)

Quite possibly the worst opening line ever written, the above quote is so overwrought and clunky that it inspired the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest which “challenges entrants to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels”.  So for all of our sakes, I have put together this list of tips, with some historical examples of literary excellence, that we might prevent ourselves from ever inspiring a similar contest.

Above all else, a great first line must generate that desire in the reader to know more about the story.  If it fails to do this your book will be put down in favor of something more interesting.  Here are the first two of eight ways to grab a reader’s interest from the very start.

Note: If not otherwise attributed, any example “first sentence” is my own creation provided only to prove concept.  I may eventually revisit these sample first sentences and turn them into full stories.

1.  Introducing the Main Character:

“Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, ‘and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice ‘without pictures or conversations?’” Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)

Alice is impertinent, impatient and for this she’s entirely identifiable.  You might use this method to express a central characteristic your main character has that’s important to the plot (such as Alice’s curiosity which immediately gets her into trouble following the white rabbit) or to imply something about their personality that sets them apart from the average person.  A good character introduction intrigues a reader and makes them want to get to know the character better.  Note that even a dislikeable character can be interesting.

2. The Profound Iceberg:

“A man cannot be understood by what he says is right; rather he is defined by what he does when he is forced to act.”

You begin with a statement that doesn’t necessarily talk about the characters directly but expresses something profound about life which will be expounded upon in the story that follows.  I call it an iceberg because the implications run deep. There’s the implication in that first sentence that someone’s resolve will be tested in what follows.  It’s essential that the story illustrates the truth of this statement for it to have a lasting impact.  Whether the character in this illustration sticks to his principles or reveals that he is a hypocrite is the subject of the story.

continued tomorrow in Pt. 2.


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