The First Sentence
The first sentence of a story is an important but often overlooked element of a good book. A great first sentence will be remembered along with the characters and story itself. One of the most famous of first lines that I hear quoted by people is only a partial quote. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." The rest of the quote from A Tale of Two Cities, by Dickins, seems to be lost in the number of words required to memorize the full quote. The other famous line I sometimes hear quoted is from a book that I would be surprised to discover the people quoting had ever read. "Call me Ishmael" is from Melville's classic, Moby Dick.
My personal favorite is from a treasured childhood book by S.E. Hinton, The Outsiders. "When I stepped out into the bright sunlight, from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman, and a ride home." I'm not sure what struck me about that line, or whether it was because it both began and ended the story, but at the young age of twelve, I was hooked.
The first sentence should name or at least reference the main character. If the story is in first person, "I" should be addressed. The second thing the first sentence should do is set the hook. It should be a powerful sentence that makes the reader ask a whole lot of questions. Why is the narrator saying to call him Ishmael? Is that not his real name? Why is a ride home on Ponyboy's mind? How did he get to the movie house? Why was he watching a movie in the middle of the day?
The First Paragraph (or two)
The first paragraph of The Outsiders goes on to make a comparison between the first person main character, Ponyboy and Paul Newman. It sets the stage by introducing us to a teen boy with usual teen boy angst and hints at the major theme of the story: the differences between the haves and the have-nots. I was hooked. Even though I was a teen girl, I was hooked hard by this boy wishing he looked like someone else but also not wanting to change because he knew he fit in where he was and would have to give up his beloved family and friends if he did change.
Hooked. That is what the first line and first paragraph should do. They should hook the reader so hard that they stand in the bookstore with the book open in their hands unable to put it back on the shelf or even walk to the counter to pay for it.
The first paragraph should start building a mood right away and add a bit of suspense and present the major theme in some way. One of the major themes in The Outsiders is rich vs poor and S.E. Hinton captures it perfectly right off the bat.
Today's exercise includes a worksheet you can work on in order to confirm you have all (or at least most) of the elements that make up a good first sentence and first paragraph. If you're skeptical of the list, pull out your favorite novel and see how it's first sentence and paragraph or two stack up.
Exercise: Confirm a Great Beginning
Main Character: Who is your main character and what is their most obvious attribute or life philosophy that has an effect on the story? Fill in the name and the trait.
Tone: What is the mood of your story? It doesn't have to last throughout the whole chapter or the whole act, but will help the reader settle in on what's to come if you can strike the right tone straight out of the gate. Write down the mood you believe your story struck.
The best way to set tone in a single paragraph is by word choice. Think about what is the mood of your story, then do some word association to come up with words that fit the mood. Add your words to the worksheet. Try coming up with some synonyms as well. Once you have a couple words in hand, see if you can work them into the first paragraph.
Theme: What is the message you want to convey with your story? Like tone, very early on we want to evoke a sense of what the story will be teaching our readers by the time they finish. Write down the major theme of your story.
It may be hard to capture a theme in a single word, so instead, think about phrases that reflect the theme. Once you've gotten a list, see if you can work a phrase or idea that represents your theme into the first paragraph (or two).
DOWNLOAD: First Sentence and Paragraph Checklist
Tips for working by hand
If you'd like to work on notepaper or set up the headings and parameters in your favorite application, include those listed above. If you are going to work by hand, give each parameter space for notes even if you plan to work down from the top because you may find as you start thinking that other ideas come to mind as you work.
Return to the Table of Contents
Go to Day 24 - Better Breathers to Eliminate a Lagging Middle