Critical First Sentence
by James Thayer
The most important words in your novel? The first sentence.
Writing it can be easy or hard, depending on who you listen to. The
French playwright Molière said, “I always
write a good first line, but I have trouble writing the others.”
But Chaim Potok said, “All beginnings are hard.”
Your first sentence is the hook for the story that follows.
The easiest thing for a reader to do is to stop reading. A good
first sentence propels the reader forward into the rest of the
story. How? By creating tension. As the reader sits down in her
chair to open the book, and as she turns the novel’s title page and
the dedication page, things are in equilibrium. The world is calm
and peaceful, and all is in a happy balance. But then she starts to
read, and two seconds later, when she reaches the end of the first
sentence, something should be out of whack. “Give readers a feeling
of motion, of something happening or about to happen,” says James
First sentences can be subtle, and they can be a smack in the face,
but notice the tension and forward motion in all the sentences
below. The world becomes unsettled by the end of each of these
famous first sentences.
“They threw me off the hay truck about noon.” James M. Cain,
The Postman Always Rings Twice.
“’Where’s Papa going with that ax?’ said Fern to her mother as they
were setting the table for breakfast.” E.B. White,
and her daemon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep
to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.” Philip Pullman,
The Golden Compass:
“The scent of smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in
the morning.” Ian Fleming, Casino Royale.
“People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could
leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood
but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not
happen every day.” Charles Portis, True Grit.
“The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could; but
when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.” Edgar Allan
Poe, The Cask of Amontillado.
“Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see
them hitting.” William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury.
These first sentences are from different genres and different eras.
Notice the similarity? They all create tension, and they do so in
the very first words of the novel. The literary agent Donald Maass
says, “There is, in any great opening line, a mini-conflict or
tension that is strong enough to carry the reader to the next step
in the narrative.” Something—something usually bad—is about
to happen, evident before the novel’s first punctuation. The
authors didn’t wait until the end of the first page or the end of
the first chapter to put tension in place, but rather did so before
the reader could take a breath. These first sentences propel the
reader farther into the story.
All successful stories are about change. A new writer often wants
to set up the scene before putting the story in motion, to clearly
show the state of things before the story’s changes begin. The new
writer places everyone in position, describes the characters and the
setting, and comments on the weather. And it’s all a mistake. Save
this stuff for later. The first sentence should make the reader
ask, “What in the world is going to happen next?”
If in the first chapter a hurricane is going to blow down an oak
tree which falls through the kitchen roof, there’s no need to first
describe the kitchen. If a torpedo is going to strike the
destroyer, there’s no need to first describe the sea and the
surrounding convoy. If a doctor is going to tell a woman she will
be giving birth to triplets, there’s no need to describe the
physician’s waiting room or to watch the doctor finish his previous
Weak opening sentences suffer from inertia. They don’t push the
reader forward to the next sentence. There’s no come hither
Illustration by Jennifer Paros -
to them. Here are novels’ first sentences from the masters,
followed by an amateurish inert version; that is, how a lesser
writer might have begun the same novels:
thought he saw the fire down in the bay before anyone else did.”
Maeve Binchy, Nights of Rain and Stars:
Inert version: “Andreas sat at the table and opened the newspaper.”
“After dark the rain began to fall again, but he had already made up
his mind to go and anyway it had been raining for weeks.”
David Wroblewski, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.
Inert version: “After dark the rain began to fall again, as it had
been for weeks.”
“His face wet with sweat and with tears, the man runs for freedom,
he runs for his life.” Jeffrey Deaver, The Twelfth Card.
Inert version: “The man walks along the sidewalk.”
“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger
followed.” Stephen King, The Gunslinger, The Dark Tower
Inert version: “The man walked across the sand dune.”
“A killer in waiting, Fred Brinkley slumps in the blue-upholstered
banquette on the top deck of the ferry.” James Patterson and
Maxine Paetro, The 6th Target.
Inert version: “Fred Brinkley sits in the blue-upholstered
banquette on the top deck of the ferry.”
In each of these first sentences by these bestselling authors, the
fictional world is unsettled at the end of the sentence. In the
inert versions, things are no more unsettled at the end of the
sentence than they were at the beginning. The inert versions don’t
tempt the reader to go farther into the story because nothing has
been knocked off balance.
Watch out for a couple of pitfalls when trying to give tension to
your story’s first sentence. When the writer tries too hard, he
might end up with an over-the-top sentence, with melodrama instead
of drama: “The president of the United States hung from the belly
of the helicopter, fiercely gripping the deck, his legs kicking the
air, the CIA headquarters at Langley two thousand feet below.”
Melodrama means extravagant theatricality, and often it’s hard
to know when something is just too much. Here’s a reliable test:
ask yourself, is this goofy?
Another pitfall is using something dull in the first sentence.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Lisa Scottoline
was struggling with the first sentence of a new novel. Her sentence
read: “Bennie Rosato shuddered when she caught sight of the prison,
as she pulled into the parking lot.” Then Scottoline
realized that “no suspense novel should have ‘parking lot’ its first
sentence.” The same is true for grocery store, living room,
mid-life crisis, empowerment, Ford Taurus, and other
And another common mistake is trying to pack too much writerly
writing into the first sentence. Keep it simple. Larry McMurtry
says about a first sentence, “Think of it as analogous to a good
country breakfast; what we want is something simple, but nourishing
to the imagination. Hold the philosophy, hold the adjectives, just
give us a plain subject and verb and perhaps a wholesome,
nonfattening adverb or two.”
If your story’s first sentence will make the reader ask, “What’s
next?” you’ve got a winner. If it will make the reader ask, “So
what?” try again.
Thayer’s thirteenth novel,
The Boxer and the Poet; Something of a
was published by Black Lyon Publishing in March 2008. He teaches
novel writing at the University of Washington Extension School, and
runs a freelance editing