Attention-Seeking Behaviour: Why Your Novel Needs a Killer First Sentence
That’s the noise of your beloved novel hitting the floor.
After all those hours of work, all those carefully-chosen phrases, all that inspiration you poured into its pages, the reader never got beyond Page 1.
Because you didn’t have a killer first sentence. You lost their attention right away.
I watched a film recently which had a really slow start. There was nothing interesting happening, the dialogue was monotonous, the setting was tedious and the characters seemed flat. “It must get better soon!” I thought to myself. I was wrong. So off went the TV – the equivalent of the reader closing your book.
When a novel begins it has to engage and excite your reader, or at least get their attention! Because you want them to move on to the next line … and the next, and the next! In fact, you really don’t want them to stop reading till the end.
Since 1982 the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest has challenged entrants to compose bad opening sentences to imaginary novels. It takes its name from the Victorian novelist George Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who began his Paul Clifford (1830) with the now infamous “It was a dark and stormy night.”
Here’s my favourite of past winners:
Chain-smoking as he stood in the amber glow of the street lamp, he gazed up at the brownstone wherein resided Bunny Morgan, and thought how like a bunny Bunny was, though he had read somewhere that rabbits were coprophages, which meant that they ate their own feces, which was really disgusting now that he thought about it, and nothing like Bunny, at least he hoped not, so on second thought Bunny wasn’t like a bunny after all, but she still was pretty hot.
So it’s pretty easy to show someone how not to start a novel, but is it possible to say what would be good?
How about these?
The fire in the cabin had all but burned out.
His room looked like a market place at the end of a busy day.
I was born at the tender age of 853, as all good Blintanoks should be.
He had waited thirty years to return that book.
It may seem ideal to start with a paragraph describing the setting, introducing the main character, or explaining the background to the story, but unless you’re a wonderful writer, it’s likely to be boring. It’s better to start with action from the first sentence, and weave the information into the action.
Using speech is a good way to start, especially if the character is talking directly to the reader. As a young teenager (more years ago than I’d care to think about!) I read Freaky Friday (1972) by Mary Rodgers. Maybe it’s not a classic, but the point is I still remember the first line:
You are not going to believe me, nobody in their right minds could possibly believe me, but it’s true, really it is!
I think it was the first time I’d ever read a book which didn’t stick to the rules about writing which had been drummed into me at school. Instead of stilted descriptions and “proper” grammar, here was Annabel Andrews actually chatting to me as if we were friends! I liked her immediately.
Annabel’s line also holds humour. What could be a better way to start than by making the reader smile, or feel some other emotion? If your novel isn’t funny maybe fear would be a more appropriate touch.
Another great way to get the reader on board is by using the element of surprise. A twist at the end of the line will have them wondering what’s next and begging to find out!
Still stuck for where to begin? Why not try starting with one of these sentences and seeing where the story takes you?
Carrie knew just what to do with Jamie’s body.
Hearing the screech of seagulls was the last thing I’d expected.
“Don’t go,” was all that was written on the scrap of green paper.
The ticket was nowhere to be found.
The glint was definitely a knife.
Limping footsteps echoed down the corridor.
And if all else fails, you could always try “It was a dark and stormy night.”
But I wouldn’t recommend it!
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</iframe> Lucy Murray gave up running a successful Mobile Zoo business to be a full-time carer for her husband, who is ill, and her daughter who has Down’s syndrome. She has written about her experiences in The Dippy Zookeeper, available from Amazon.