A memorable first sentence can resonate in your head like organ music in a church. It can take you from reading the first page to see what the book is about to realizing that you should probably buy the book instead of reading it there in the bookstore.
But one of the hardest things for an author to do is write an attention-grabbing opening.
Here are four ways to make openings that keep your readers turning the page:
1. Make it surprising.
A lot of people will tell you that you should have an action-packed scene to open your story. This isn’t necessarily the case: It’s hard to keep the momentum in the following scenes that won’t be as full of action, and these kinds of openings might even be starting to get cliché.
What you should have in your opening is something unexpected. “It was a dark and stormy night” is so famous that everyone knows how it will go, and everyone wakes up in the morning thinking about their day. If the first paragraph of your book is predictable, there’s no reason to expect the next page to be more interesting.
You can do this by introducing something that gives us questions, like Suzanne Collins does in the Hunger Games:
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course she did. This is the day of the reaping.
Katniss doesn’t wake up just like she does on every other day. This is the day of the reaping, and Prim is having nightmares about it. Immediately we have questions – what is the reaping? – that make waking up in the morning anything but predictable.
Or J. R. R. Tolkien in the Hobbit:
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
When we think of creatures living in holes in the ground, we think of moles and crabs and little creatures that tend to be nuisances. Here Tolkien is quick to show us that a hobbit isn’t like anything we are familiar with, but makes us wonder what hobbits actually are.
2. Make it relatable.
Surprises are great, but if you throw a whole bunch of surprises at your reader’s face at once, you’re more likely to leave them confused than curious. Suzanne Collins grounded the reaping in something understandable by showing us Prim’s nightmares. Tolkien started his description of hobbits by contrasting them with creatures we already understand. Mix your surprise with something we can already understand.
John Green expertly used something his readers could relate to in The Fault in Our Stars:
Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.
Right away he shows that he has a clear understanding of depression, which many of his fans can relate to. But he also mixes in a surprise with Hazel’s sarcastic declaration of her depression.
3. Give clear context.
In the second sentence of The Fault in Our Stars, Hazel talks about cancer booklets and websites and depression, which all place her as a modern teenage girl. In the third sentence, Green shows that Hazel is depressed because she is dying of cancer. So in the first three sentences, we know who the story is about, where and when it is happening, and what Hazel’s biggest challenge is.
The sooner you answer the who, what, where, and when of the story, the sooner your readers are immersed in the story. The beginning is the foundation of your story. Build a foundation that the rest of your story can stand on.
4. Introduce the main character.
When you pick up a book, you want to participate in someone else’s world. If you don’t introduce your reader into a character’s world, you’re not giving them what they’re looking for.
What are your readers going to love about your main character? Why are they going to cheer them on? What about them is special enough to follow them through 70,000 words? And how can you introduce them in a way that proves it?
Katniss loves her sister enough to challenge her entire world. The hobbit is a strange, lovable creature who is pushed out of his narrow comfort zone into a dangerous world. Hazel is a lonely, cynical girl looking for hope. These are all things you can know about each character from their first chapter.
Building the winning beginning
The beginning serves a different purpose when you start writing. First, it just needs to be the place you get some traction to get the story moving. For almost everyone, that means it’s terrible. That’s okay.
Don’t worry about making your opening incredible until you have already written the story. By then you’ve gotten to know your characters better than ever. You know what kind of foundation you need to lay out to make the rest of your story make sense. Then when you go back and revise, shred your traction beginning and make it into something that does the rest of your story justice.
What’s the best first sentence you’ve ever read?