The first sentence of a book is a handshake, perhaps an embrace. Style and personality are irrelevant. They can be formal or casual. They can be tall or short or fat or thin. They can obey the rules or break them. But they need to contain a charge. A live current, which shocks and illuminates. —Jhumpa Lahiri
Ninety nine percent of unsolicited manuscripts won’t be read beyond the first five pages.
For novelist, writing is art. For agents, writing is business. Gatekeepers of the industry read manuscripts searching for reasons to toss them in the bin. And they haven’t time to spare, which is why the first lines of your novel must grab them by the collar and keep them reading.
A novel’s first pages set the expectations that define it. One redundant phrase says more redundancy to follow. An overuse of modifiers says amateur. Melodramatic or confusing dialogue, lifeless, clichéd, or undeveloped characterizations, a lack of movement—these stop readers in their tracks.
He adored New York City. He idolized it all out of proportion…no, make that: he – he romanticized it all out of proportion. Yes. To him, no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin.’
Uh, no let me start this over.
He was too romantic about Manhattan, as he was about everything else. He thrived on the hustle bustle of the crowds and the traffic. To him, New York meant beautiful women and street-smart guys who seemed to know all the angles…’.
Ah, corny, too corny for my taste. Can we … can we try and make it more profound?
He adored New York City. For him, it was a metaphor for the decay of contemporary culture. The same lack of individual integrity that caused so many people to take the easy way out was rapidly turning the town of his dreams in…’
No, that’s a little bit too preachy. I mean, you know, let’s face it, I want to sell some books here.
He adored New York City, although to him it was a metaphor for the decay of contemporary culture. How hard it was to exist in a society desensitized by drugs, loud music, television, crime, garbage…’
Too angry, I don’t want to be angry.
He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved. Behind his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat.’
I love this.
‘New York was his town, and it always would be.”
― From Manhattan by Woody Allen
Your first pages lay down a threshold separating the reader’s world from one you have or are creating. This threshold will either entice him to enter or cause him to back away. According to Film director Elia Kazan, the writer has seven minutes to win his audience. In the brick-and-mortar days, booksellers noted a similar time frame. The common pattern seen among shoppers amounted to a glimpse at the book jacket that perhaps invited a look at page one. By page three, novels were either purchased or returned the shelf.
And while crafting a novel’s lead is difficult, beginning a novel is equally difficult for the reader, who is unfamiliar with your tone, verbal habits, vocabulary, intentions. The reader, it’s wise to consider, has his intention, as well—to remember the information he’s given, to sift through and prioritize the names, character relationships, details of setting, etc. To be sure, he is asking himself, Will the effort be worth it?
If you fail to hook the reader with your opening, whatever follows, regardless of how well crafted, won’t be read. Your lead must seduce an audience with freshness or novelty, with humor, paradox, or surprise. It should be mysterious and compelling, either poetic or shocking and abrupt. It must hang the intrigue far enough out front to coax readers to the next sentence, the next page, the next chapter.
Which is why Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk often rewrites the first line of his novels 50 to 100 times. “The hardest thing is always the first sentence—that is painful.”
“A great first line is the collateral that grants the author a line of intellectual credit from the reader. The reader unconsciously commits: “That line was so damn good, I’m in for the next 50 pages.” …a good opening line is assertive. It’s lean and mean and cares nothing for fatty junk language or clumpy ten-gallon words. A good opening line is a promise, or a question, or an unproven idea. It says something interesting. It shows a shattered status quo. A good opening line is stone in our shoe that we cannot shake.”
But as Graham Greene opened his novel The End of the Affair, “A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.”
You can start your novel at any point, with any detail, so long as you cause your readers to care or wonder. Consider the opening line of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca—
Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.
Nine words, and the reader is dosed with curiosity. What is Manderley, and why does the narrator dream about it? A nostalgic tone suggests the narrator would like return but can’t. Why? What happened? What will happen?
A line can sink its hooks into readers with an unusual idea, a mysterious statement, a sucker punch, action, or the promise of action. Even when readers’ curiosities arise from omissions, the omissions arise from the writer’s use of detail.
Effective openings use details that canvas the setting or reveal a character’s thoughts, perhaps showcase a distinct narrative voice. Details allow the writer to bring in the original, the peculiar, even the perplexing, all of which intrigue readers.
Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally—
In Poland’s deepest autumn, a tall young man in an expensive overcoat, double-breasted dinner jacket beneath it and—in the lapel of the dinner jacket—a large ornamental gold-on-black-enamel Hakenkreuz (swastika) emerged from a fashionable apartment building in Straszewskiego Street, on the edge of the ancient center of Cracow, and saw his chauffeur waiting with fuming breath by the open door of an immense and, even in this blackened world, lustrous Adler limousine.
“Watch the pavement, Herr Schindler,” said the chauffeur. “It’s as icy as a widow’s heart.”
In this scene we’re given the setting, Cracow during the German occupation, and are introduced to a wealthy and influential member of the Nazi party. He’s making his way across ‘thin ice’, which hints at Oskar Schindler’s course, as he is destined to become committed to saving the lives of the Jews marked for the deportation and death.
Details establish credibility, and credibility assures the reader that the writer can tell a good story.
Writers have the best chance of hooking their readers if their first pages deliver:
- Story questions
- Tension (in the reader, as well as the characters)
- Professional-caliber writing (on every page)
Ulysses wants to return home. Hamlet must do the one thing he’s incapable of doing—kill a man, his uncle, in cold blood. Embroiled in conflict from start to finish, Scarlett is determined to hold onto Tara.
Stories are about people in trouble: marital trouble, parental trouble, trouble with cops, trouble with crops, people with addictions, people with afflictions, etc. The first page—the first paragraph—should hint at the conflict brewing in the hero’s world.
“Let your reader know as soon as possible that not only does your hero or heroine have trouble but that the problem is pivotal. Seasickness, a sore throat, or a hangover are not interesting or serious problems… unless, of course, your protagonist is Captain Ahab, Pavarotti, or Betty Ford.”
Rummage through your bookshelves and read the first pages of your favorite novels. How many of them open with a storm on the horizon? Dissect the writer’s work. Try to recall the effects each opening had on you when you initially read it. Do these openings hold up on second reading? How about the openings below?
War entered my childhood world not with the blasts of rockets and bombs but with my father’s footsteps as he walked through the hallway, passing my bedroom toward his. —In the Shadow of the Banyan: A Novel by Vaddy Ratner
The week before I left my family and Florida and the rest of my minor life to go to boarding school in Alabama, my mother insisted on throwing me a going-away party. To say that I had low expectations would be to underestimate the matter dramatically. Although I was more or less forced to invite all my “school friends,” i.e., the ragtag bunch of drama people and English geeks I sat with by social necessity in the cavernous cafeteria of my public school, I knew they wouldn’t come. Still, my mother persevered, awash in the delusion that I had kept my popularity secret from her all these years. She cooked a small mountain of artichoke dip. She festooned our living room in green and yellow streamers, the colors of my new school. She bought two dozen champagne poppers and placed them around the edge of our coffee table.
And when that final Friday came, when my packing was mostly done, she sat with my dad and me on the living-room couch at 4:56 P.M. and patiently awaited the arrival of the Good-bye to Miles Cavalry. Said cavalry consisted of exactly two people: Marie Law-son, a tiny blonde with rectangular glasses, and her chunky (to put it charitably) boyfriend, Will. —Looking for Alaska by John Green
The following passage is how Chris Cleave opened his bestselling novel Little Bee, an emotionally-charged, literary page-turner. If you haven’t read it, I recommend it (as reader and writer). Cleave’s dexterity on macro and micro levels is compelling and inspiring. And whether or not you’ve read the book at this point, write a quick page on what the extended imagery tells you about Little Bee and her life thus far.
Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl. Everyone would be pleased to see me coming. Maybe I would visit with you for the weekend and then suddenly, because I am fickle like that, I would visit with the man from the corner shop instead—but you would not be sad because you would be eating a cinnamon bun, or drinking a cold Coca-Cola from the can, and you would never think of me again. We would be happy, like lovers who met on holiday and forgot each other’s names.
A pound coin can go wherever it thinks it will be safest. It can cross deserts and oceans and leave the sound of gunfire and the bitter smell of burning thatch behind. When it feels warm and secure it will turn around and smile at you, the way my big sister Nkiruka used to smile at the men in our village in the short summer after she was a girl but before she was really a woman, and certainly before the evening my mother took her to a quiet place for a serious talk.
Of course a pound coin can be serious too. It can disguise itself as power, or property, and there is nothing more serious when you are a girl who has neither. You must try to catch the pound, and trap it in your pocket, so that it cannot reach a safe country unless it takes you with it. But a pound has all the tricks of a sorcerer. When pursued I have seen it shed its tail like a lizard so that you are left holding only pence. And when you finally go to seize it, the British pound can perform the greatest magic of all, and this is to transform itself into not one, but two, identical green American dollar bills. Your fingers will close on empty air, I am telling you.
How I would love to be a British pound. A pound is free to travel to safety, and we are free to watch it go. This is the human triumph. This is called, globalization. A girl like me gets stopped at immigration, but a pound can leap the turnstiles, and dodge the tackles of those big men with their uniform caps, and jump straight into a waiting airport taxi. Where to, sir? Western Civilization, my good man, and make it snappy.
See how nicely a British pound coin talks? It speaks with the voice of Queen Elizabeth the Second of England. Her face is stamped upon it, and sometimes when I look very closely I can see her lips moving. I hold her up to my ear. What is she saying? Put me down this minute, young lady, or I shall call my guards.
If the Queen spoke to you in such a voice, do you suppose it would be possible to disobey? I have read that the people around her—even kings and prime ministers—they find their bodies responding to her orders before their brains can even think why not. Let me tell you, it is not the crown and the scepter that have this effect. Me, I could pin a tiara on my short fuzzy hair, and I could hold up a scepter in one hand, like this, and police officers would still walk up to me in their big shoes and say, Love the ensemble, madam, now let’s have a quick look at your ID, shall we? No, it is not the Queen’s crown and scepter that rule in your land. It is her grammar and her voice. That is why it is desirable to speak the way she does. That way you can say to police officers, in a voice as clear as the Cullinan diamond, My goodness, how dare you?I am only alive at all because I learned the Queen’s English. Maybe you are thinking, that isn’t so hard. After all, English is the official language of my country, Nigeria. Yes, but the trouble is that back home we speak it so much better than you. To talk the Queen’s English, I had to forget all the best tricks of my mother tongue. For example, the Queen could never say, There was plenty wahala, that girl done use her bottom power to engage my number one son and anyone could see she would end in the bad bush. Instead the Queen must say, My late daughter-in-law used her feminine charms to become engaged to my heir, and one might have foreseen that it wouldn’t end well. It is all a little sad, don’t you think? Learning the Queen’s English is like scrubbing off the bright red varnish from your toenails, the morning after a dance. It takes a long time and there is always a little bit left at the end, a stain of red along the growing edges to remind you of the good time you had. So, you can see that learning came slowly to me. On the other hand, I had plenty of time. I learned your language in an immigration detention center, in Essex, in the southeastern part of the United Kingdom. Two years, they locked me in there. Time was all I had.
Every writer wrestles with his novel’s lead. If you’re struggling, remember that you’re not alone.
There’s immense hesitation before writing the first word. So much depends on it. —Alan Hollinghurst
I always suffer from the fear of putting down the first line. It is amazing the terrors, the magics, the prayers, the straightening shyness that assails one. —John Steinbeck
…sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going. I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true sentence I had written. —Earnest Hemmingway
As a writer, I attach an inordinate, nearly insane level of importance to that first sentence and feel that if it’s not right, the whole book will fail. As a scholar I don’t think that’s actually true. But as a writer, I believe it. It’s the literary equivalent of taking three practice swings, and no more than three practice swings, every time I step up to the plate. —Steven Hayward