The first sentence is the most important one in your novel. Your first sentence must entice. If it fails to do so, no one will bother reading your second.
Readers (and agents) make quick judgments about whether a book is right for them. They can afford to be picky and they won’t simply dive into your book to take a nice swim—they’ll read the first sentence. If it doesn’t grab them, that’s all they’ll read.
You must strike hard and fast.
There is no rule regarding what should be “in” that sentence. It could be an interesting detail, some dialogue (though most people prefer some context before a conversation begins—at least in chapter one), an original perspective, a joke, a fear, a voice that is fresh and profound, a metaphor, an image, a question, an event, or none of those things. The only rule is that it must compel the reader to continue reading.
That being said, the reader subconsciously wants to know: “Am I in good hands with this author?” So although there isn’t a simple checklist for how to compose a great first sentence, you at least need to prove that you are a good storyteller.
Try getting to your conflict in that first sentence. Did I do that in my novel? No, but I can think of some good books that did (and they are published whereas mine is . . . awesome anyway, damn it!). I’ve written several hundred different first sentences for my one novel. In one of my favorites (the first example below), I gave my main character some personality with some witty dialogue that also helped set the scene, foreshadow some danger (that we would later find out was connected to the main conflict), and hint at genre. All of those things are good to “get out there” as quickly as possible.
Here are a few of my “first sentences” I’ve come up with for my novel. Of course, I only get one first sentence in the manuscript.
- “Wait a bloody second,” Alanna said, “You mean you got zapped by lightning doing this? As in, you were setting up this same contraption we’re working with right now, then Boom! God went Old Testament on you?”
- Alanna O’Connor spun around, her long auburn hair taking sudden flight, and planted her thin palm against the castle’s sandstone wall, blocking Zoë’s path.
- When Alanna declared that Zoë’s being struck by lightning was, “Wicked cool” and “Brilliant,” she meant it in the best possible way.
- Alanna O’Connor was in no mood for this.
Each of the above is okay. Which is the best first line? I don’t actually know. Feel free to leave a comment.