Do you know how important the hook is to get your story read? Have you put as much work on your first sentence as the entire book? Because if you haven’t, your work may never be given a chance.
In theory, I already knew a hook was important. There needed to be something interesting to pull in the reader. But what I didn’t realize is that the first sentence can decide the entire fate of your book. Snap judgments are made, and your first sentence, first paragraph, first page, will determine if an agent/editor/reader will keep looking for more. This isn’t a maybe, this is guaranteed and your entire chance of even being read is determined by such a small portion of your overall work.
This is a classic step in marketing. We’re all hooked by shiny objects and exciting one-liners. The cover and the hook is what gets us to pick up the book, and an exploration of the first page is what gets us to buy it.
I started writing flash fiction to get more feedback from professionals. I’ve been able to get chapter critiques for my novels as prizes from Twitter Pitch contests–which were invaluable!–but I wanted more than that. I wanted to understand my story building flaws. I’m so glad I approached flash fiction to accomplish this goal. I’ve targeted magazines which give feedback, a list I procured by good ‘ol fashion google searches, literary search engines such as the grinder, and my writer support community on Scribophile. The feedback showed I just took too long to get to the point. If I’m doing that in flash fiction, how is that coming off in my novel writing?
Since then, I’ve revised my work-in-progress manuscripts for this issue, and they’re all the better for it. But I hope you can read this post and save yourself the months of wandering to reach this epiphany. My advice: Spend an enormous amount of time on your first page!
The First Sentence
There is some freedom of expression on how to format your first sentence. Here are some examples of first sentences of popular novels:
Walking to school over snow-muffled cobbles, Karou had no sinister premonitions about the day.
– Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
Laini goes for the tone approach. We’re introduced to the setting, instantly getting grounded in the scene in the first half of the sentence, and then being given an assurance that the main character (with a unique name) doesn’t believe anything is going to go wrong, but the way its written we can feel this is sarcastic and everything is going to go wrong very soon.
Everything had gone horribly wrong.
– TruthWitch by Susan Dennard
Susan goes for the simple approach. Everything has gone horribly wrong. Simple. Precise. We’re ready to go for a ride.
The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards.
– A Wizard of EarthSea by Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula starts us out strong, giving us the sensation of being in a realm like Lord of the Rings. We’re given an overview of a mystical land filled to the brim with wizards, and we’re excited to step inside.
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.
– Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Normally starting a book with the main character waking up is a big no-no. But in Suzanne’s case, she’s not focusing on the character waking up, she’s focusing on what “today” is. Her sister is gone, just like Catniss is afraid of, since today is the “reaping.” It’s foreshadowing what’s to come.
I hate First Friday.
– Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard
Victoria goes for internal dialogue. In this case, “First Friday” is specific to the world-building element of Red Queen. It immediately jumps into the society’s structure and how the main character feels about it. This is the main selling point of this novel, similar to Hunger Games, and Victoria is wise to waste no time and get us going in that direction right away.
Just from the quick analysis of a few first sentences from my favorite books, it’s clear that the first sentence has been written with a specific purpose in mind. Usually some vital element is already introduced, or something exciting is said to get us to ask “what went wrong?” or “what’s going to happen next?” The best hooks don’t just give us information, but set the tone of the novel without breaking a sweat. This can be a pitfall, for if you’ve set your tone to something which is different than the rest of your novel, your reader will be forever finding their footing, looking for what hooked them in the first place and never finding it.
Here’s the first sentence of my novel, Fallen to Grace, which is currently seeking representation.
Azrael gazed down at the child who was so perfect, so serene, she could have been an angel… if she’d still been alive.
I’m going for a mixture of elements taken from Laini Taylor, which introduces the character and tone, as well as Susanne Collins which has a foreshadowing element. I want the reader to be focused on Azrael and her plight. Someone has died, is she next? Are angels real? What does it mean if they are? … Hopefully it works! Guess I’ll find out when the novel is released!
What is the first sentence in your work in progress? Feel free to leave a comment below! (If you rewrote it to share on this post, kudos!)