If you’ve been a writer for long, you probably already know that good agents are EXTREMELY busy. If they aren’t instantly captured, many will never read past the opening line. That means, if you aren’t an established author (and sometimes even if you are) you need something powerful to get their attention.
Even more, if your reader needs to go to the bathroom, but has just read your first sentence, you want them to fight against their bladders to read the second. A sentence like, “John’s boss had caused him misery once again” might sound like a decent start. (After all, the sentence introduces our main character, AND shows us how unhappy he is with his job all at once!) Sadly, it’s not, and all the good it does is irrelevant.
Simply put, the above sentence doesn’t work because it answers more questions than it causes the reader to ask... Think of the questions your reader might have before begin read your book--
“Who is this book about?”
“What is this book about?”
Answer: John and his unhappy life.
“What is the initial conflict going to be about?”
Answer: John’s work life.
Don’t misunderstand. Having a grounded story is important - but NOT in the first sentence. Your first sentence needs, instead, to force the reader to ask MORE questions, not less. It must both intrigue and surprise.
Consider the following sentence: “It happened again today.”
Read that again a few more times.
Don’t you want to know what happened? Why it happened? Who made it happen?
This was the first sentence of one of my short stories, and I’ll probably use it again in another project - it’s just that powerful!
Here’s another great example, the opening line of the Nick Cave song, We Came Along This Road--
“I left by the back door with my wife's lover's smoking gun.”
This one does ground the reader. We know what happened to a certain degree, but we’re still left asking so many more questions! Why did Nick shoot him? Assuming the obvious, that it was because he'd just discovered the illicit affair, we're left wondering how did it get started? How did he find out? Did Nick plan this out, or did it happen in the heat of the moment?
We are thrown smack in the middle of the story. We’re already there, holding the gun on the street thinking, “My god… what have I done?” How could we possibly go to the bathroom or switch to the next story? We have to keep reading… and that is what a good first sentence is designed to do. In some ways, it is more important than the whole first chapter. Be sure to take your time and get it right!
Send in your opening sentence for analysis and for a chance to have your book featured on this blog post.
UPDATE: Here is the fantastic first sentence of Margie Borchers' unpublished work The Betrayal Chain: "I awake to another day of eerie stillness, uneasy as oblique streams of morning light creep millimeter by millimeter along the bedroom wall."