19

There is much advice out there on "how to write a killer opening line". Usually these blog posts or how-to-write book chapters list examples of first sentences from recognized masterworks or group them into categories such as:

  1. A statement of eternal principle
  2. A statement of simple fact
  3. A statement of paired facts

and so on.

Using that advice, I can come up with a hundred intriguing opening sentences, none of which fit my book. Because what none of the advice out there tells me is:

How to write a killer opening line for my book. Not just some random opening for a non-existent book, but one that opens my story.

To find a first sentence for a story I have plotted, I cannot simply use the advice to write "a statement of eternal principle". A sentence such as "The sun rises in the east" does not fit many books, although it is a statement of an eternal principle.

So there has to be something more to writing an opening sentence. There has to be some way to find the opening that is inherent in your story. Some way to boil down your story until the first sentence remains.

So what proven methods are there to derive an opening line from a story?


This question is not about beginnings, which I have asked about here.

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    This question is not about *beginnings* I think obviously a good first line must be about beginnings, related quite deeply to the beginning. If I thought I could throw away my first line, I would. My first line will always be necessary to the beginning; and to derive my first line, I must know how the story begins (unlike other answers, because I am a discovery writer I don't have to know anything else about it, but I'll have a good idea of who my character is). – Amadeus May 2 '18 at 19:43
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    @DPT Why is that what you want? No offense, but I don't think that is a good thing to want! The first thing I want to do is not sell them on reading the book (which is what I think you are trying to do), but entertain them as quickly as possible. I can't think of a good movie opening (IMO) that is not entertaining and engaging from the first scene, or one that begins with a statement of its "theme". – Amadeus May 2 '18 at 20:55
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    If I'm reading this question correctly, are you looking for some formula which accepts "story" as input, and then you turn the crank and "opening sentence" pops out? And you are asking this question despite the fact that there are countless articles which try to help an author do this and come up short? – Cort Ammon May 3 '18 at 0:14
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    Copy and paste: It was a dark and stormy night... – DoctorDestructo May 3 '18 at 2:13
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    Hey Cloudchaser - I was at the big box bookstore yesterday to buy Oryx and Crake (Atwood) but they didn't have it and theyear of the flood looked too dystopic. Went to the Fantasy section and paged through endless fantasy books which all started with violence until I found 'The Power' which I bought not because of the first line but because Atwood's recommendation is splashed across the top of the cover. Only book I bought. hated the start of the others. Cracked the book now and the first line is "The shape of power is always the same: It is the shape of a tree." I like that line. FWIW. – DPT May 3 '18 at 18:29

11 Answers 11

29

This is an odd question, but not for the reason you likely think I say that. Let me explain.

It doesn't matter how good your opening line is, if it isn't completely in line (or in tune) with the rest of your novel.

If I were to write an epic tale about three friends who need to save the world, and I open with:

The tortoise, how marvellous creature it truly is. Slow and lumbering, to be sure, but determined to walk a thousand miles all the same.

What I am in fact doing here is foreshadowing the novel and the underlying theme (underdog story, perhaps). But more importantly, look at what else I am doing.

  • I'm setting a narrative voice (just look at how the sentence flows) (the slow, almost documentary styled word choice, the slow-pace that one might assume comes from a countryside-styled living. almost like the Lord of the Rings, starting in the Shire)
  • I'm showing the character as a bit of a factoid nerd (or biologist, or philosopher depending on your personal view) (showing that the Point of View character would even consider this, so they might well be a bit of a nerd, or a biologist to refer to tortoises in the first place)
  • I'm showing that this will be a long, slow battle, but in the end we'll get there (wherever 'there' is) (the battle, referring to the end of the epic tale, the climax where you fight 'the big bad')

It's a killer line, not because of rules or guidelines, but because it's the right line for this tale I'm telling.

So my advice is to consider just what your tale is, what the author voice and character voice is, and fuse all that into an opening line that will say just what is going on (or purposely obfuscate that, as Stephen King does to give you a sense of normalcy to rip that away from you).

How you go about fusing all that is what sets master storytellers apart from apprentices. (a nice way of saying I don't know how to put that into clear-cut rules... and I'm not a master)

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    Then you have misunderstood my question. I don't want you to write my first sentence for me. I want you to explain how to write a first sentence so that everyone who reads your answer can follow your instructions and write a first sentence for their novels. – user29032 May 2 '18 at 17:49
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    @Cloudchaser I'm going to assume that's sarcasm. If you don't like my answer, you are well within your rights to downvote it. If you believe it should/can be improved, please comment and I will take that into consideration (and perhaps improve the answer accordingly). But if you want to tell me that it isn't the answer you want (or simply disagree), then I really don't know what to tell you. Or should I resort to equally sarcastic retorts? I'm quite good at that. – Fayth85 May 2 '18 at 18:56
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    @Cloudchaser Go into the chat. Go over all my reasoning. And then reply in chat. The comment section isn't for expansive discussions. – Fayth85 May 2 '18 at 20:40
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    Does this opening line come from some existing work? Google turns up nothing, but you describe it as a "killer line", which seems like a strange way to describe something you just came up with for a hypothetical story where we can't judge how well it actually works. – user2357112 May 2 '18 at 23:21
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    @Fayth85 How about "In the beginning, God created the heavens and earth"? :) I heard that book had some success – Pierre Arlaud May 3 '18 at 9:29
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While there is no one single way, here's a practical approach.

You need to be capable of answering a few crucial questions about your work:

  • What is the work's overall feel and style?
  • What, about the very first couple of pages, do you hope is going to grab the reader's attention, and earn their interest in the story?
  • What are the most urgent goals for you the writer in your opening paragraphs and pages?

What you're aiming for is something written in your style, and working towards your goals, that also introduces a reader-attention hook as quickly as possible.

Keep all these in mind, and you'll know what you're trying to do, how to do it in a way that reflects the entire piece. how to lure your reader into tagging along.

An Example

One of the most famous first lines in all of fiction is Jane Austen's immortal opening for Pride and Prejudice:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

The novel's tone is one of formal, sober prose, but full of wry wit and observations of Austen's society. Therefore, opening on a single, condensed wry observation, stated as a formal certainty, does a great job both introducing Austen's style and encapsulating it in a single line. "If you like this line, you're going to be on board for this novel."

The author's immediate goals include establishing the Bennet family and their situation, and introducing the central conflict of matchmaking to assure one's future -- both one's happiness and one's financial security. This line makes the theme clear and explicit, and sets us up to segue into the specifics of the Bennets and their responses to the new arrival in the neighborhood. This means the line doesn't feel out of place -- it has a purpose; it is advancing the story; it is necessary.

And what of the reader's interest? How does the first line help the reader want to continue reading? Here, there is a double hook: humor, and impending conflict. A reader intrigued by the obvious irony and cynicism of the opening, may read on, to read more things that will make them laugh. And the second hook is the tension of wanting to find out more, of wanting to see what will happen -- who is the young bachelor; what does he really want; how will he respond to the implied attentions he is about to receive? The reader has ample reason to turn the page and read on.


Austen's answers to my three questions aren't trivial, and yours don't need to be, either -- although easy answers work just as well.

  • Examples of "feel and style" can be the zany energy of a humor piece; the cerebral curiosity of a Hard SF story; the unique voice of one particular character.
  • "What is the first thing I want to grab the reader's attention" might be riveting action; a delicious turn of phrase; a philosophical conundrum; a promise of a sex scene just round the corner.
  • "Immediate author goals" might be getting in some crucial exposition; kick off the murder investigation; get the reader's blood pumping; establish where this story falls in the canon of a beloved series.

This is about as close to a pragmatic set of instructions as you're likely to get. Simply because constructing the first sentence of a creeping horror story centering on a sympathetic-but-offbeat character, is by nature entirely different from constructing the first sentence of a satirical fairy tale about the bleakness of the modern human condition.

But I think these three questions will focus you, into very clear goals and constraints. Once you have such a concrete idea of what you're aiming for, ideas tend to surge and offer themselves -- and you can try a dozen different variations until you feel like you're homing in on something that works.

  • I'd upvote this again and again if I could! – GGx May 3 '18 at 13:52
10

Avoid beginning your draft with the first sentence.

I know that sounds unintuitive to the point of madness, but I speak from experience. Even when I begin the drafting process with a clear idea of where things are headed, there are always at least one or two surprises waiting for me (usually in the 2nd act, but that's a personal thing). And the stress of trying to work out how best to hook your audience right off the bat can be paralyzing…which is not an ideal way to begin any writing project, be it short fiction or a screenplay or a full-length novel.

So do what I do: hold off on finalizing the first sentence, or even the entire first paragraph, until you've settled into the story you're trying to tell. Let the narrative breathe; let yourself make mistakes and revisions thereof; trust in your ability to circle back through it for however long it takes you to decide "This is it!". That'll never be as difficult as simply banging your head against a blank page, hoping to get it perfect on the very first try.

  • That's good advice, J.H., and I subscribe to it wholeheartedly, but that does not answer my question how I can derive the first sentence from the story. – user29032 May 2 '18 at 19:10
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This is an interesting question and, personally, I think the answer can only be found within your novel (as I think you've already discerned).

The problem I have with the Writer’s Digest article you’ve linked is that the first thing it says is:

This is your first opportunity to hook readers in.

But then goes on to give a lot of advice that’s so boring I struggled to keep reading. If you’re writing literary fiction, the advice in that article about paired facts, voice, mood and frames may be useful, but personally I agree with @Amadeus when he talks about in media res and says (not to you but to @DPT):

The first thing I want to do is not sell them on reading the book (which is what I think you are trying to do), but entertain them as quickly as possible. I can't think of a good movie opening (IMO) that is not entertaining and engaging from the first scene, or one that begins with a statement of its "theme”.

You have a lot of helpful advice already, so I thought I would explain how I came up with my opening line, in the hope it will guide you towards finding yours. I asked myself some fundamental questions about my book:

What type of novel have I written: A psychological thriller.

What’s the purpose of my novel: It’s purpose is to entertain, not educate, but provide a brief escape from reality (I have written novels with loftier purposes but not this one).

Why did I write it: Because my previous two novels had been magnum opuses or lilting literary tales. This time, I wanted to write an unputdownable novel that people enjoyed so much, they read it in one sitting. I wanted to write a story in a clear, easy to read voice that cut to the chase as if I was speaking my story to a captive listener.

What am I try to evoke from the reader: I wanted to thrill them, put them on the edge of the seat and keep them there until the last page.

What is my novel really about: A woman whose mistake changes her life on a dime and opens her eyes to the fact that her reality isn’t what she thought it was.

How does my novel start: With her mistake.

So, my opening line needed to meet all of those needs: to hook, entertain and thrill the reader. To speak straight to the point in a clear voice. To make them cling to my novel and not put it down until they got to the last page. To open in media res in the middle of my protagonist’s mistake.

So, I started it:

Before the barrel of the syringe is even empty, I know I've killed him.

So, to repeat, I think the answer to your question of how to write a killer opening line, lies not out on the web, not in this forum, but in the novel you have written.

I wish you all the luck in the world finding it! Maybe you could share it when you do?

3

As you have already stated the most important part is to have the finished story ready so that you really know what will happen - plans are great, but they never survive the first contact with a beta reader.

Beta readers are an important aspect of finding out what fits your style. Especially because you have to find out what your general style is. Do you always write long sentences and seem to love describing scenery? Then your first sentences should be long and describe the stage. Do you prefer short sentences, focusing on the actions of your characters? Starting with a fast scene might be perfect. Are you good at describing emotions? The feelings of your protagonist in the first scene might be a good starting point. Are you funny? A little joke might be a good icebreaker. Your beta readers can tell you what you are good at. Not what you think you are good at - but what you really are good at.

By making sure that you know what readers think the style of your book is you can make sure that potential readers can discern whether they like your style with a couple sentences. Don't write a long philosophical everlasting-principle-phrase when you want to get your reader on to a rollercoaster ride of emotions. Don't write a long beautiful scenery description if your focus will later be on the amount of ammunition left in the magazines of the people shooting at your protagonist. Don't write a short shout-out if you are later going for detailed descriptions.

Your goal is to set the stage and show your reader what to expect from your style.

Hooking your reader is worthless if they put the book aside two pages later because your style seems to have changed dramatically.

After that you have to think about when, where and how to incorporate this. You already have a "finished" book, but you can still add a sentence or two or cut some off. It depends on your work and in the end it's up to you to decide the specific details.

Maybe you planned to start with your protagonist thinking back to a heist that just happened and talking with others about what to do next, but your readers told you that the best parts were the action scenes. Why not start a few minutes earlier with the heist? You are trying to reach action fans after all - so give them action! The same obviously applies to other styles.

3

This may depend on the writer and their style; what I think is a great opening line, and what you think is a great opening line, may be quite different things.

Speaking for myself, I write stories. Not literature, not poetry, not deep philosophy. Stories, about some person, often about learning their place in the world. I don't write repeating characters, my MC is transformed from who she is on page 1, to who she is on page 350 (or whatever).

Thus, my opening line will be about my character doing something, with a minor problem (not yet her major issue that drives the story), that reveals something of her character and setting. Typically not her superpower or what makes her unique, but a secondary characteristic I still think is important: She has compassion, perhaps. She relies heavily on somebody else, perhaps. She doesn't like her boss, perhaps.

The first line is "in media res" on a throw-away problem unnecessary to the plot. It isn't the whole thing, that takes a page or two, but the first line is character driven, contains a conflict for her, and in that first paragraph at least she is feeling some kind of conflict emotion. Dissatisfaction, anger, worry, frustration, resentment, disbelief, etc.

I say "throw-away" because the point of this problem (or issue) is not important to the plot; I want it to pass and the reader to forget about it! This is about immediately investing the reader in my character, her thoughts, her feeling, and how she deals with such a problem. That is all I want them to remember, not that she burned her toast, but that she is a human being that burns her toast. The reader will realize gradually she is a brilliant young researcher in bioenergy, well within the reader's "accept anything" range, but it is not something to open with. From her POV she doesn't think of that, so the information must come from context and other characters she meets in her job.

For now, she is alone, she got distracted thinking, she burned her toast, and is running late. All that is a little more than the first line, I admit. But the first line is the best killer line I can come up with to describe the moment that Brit realizes -- that smell is her toast burning.

3

As obvious as it may sound, the one essential thing your opening must do is provide an entry point into your book. You want to bring your reader into your story as directly and as effectively as possible. How you do that depends on your target audience, your specific book, and the distance between them.

The best opening I know is Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. It's a lot longer than a sentence, but it's doing a ton of work.

Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the same horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men. Now, women forget all those things they don't want to remember, and remember everything they don't want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.

So the beginning of this was a woman and she had come back from burying the dead. Not the dead of sick and ailing with friends at the pillow and the feet. She had come back from the sodden and the bloated; the sudden dead, their eyes flung wide open in judgment.

This is a book about a poor, rural black woman, written at a time when one had never been the protagonist of a book like this before. Hurston couldn't jump right into the action without losing her mainstream audience immediately. So she starts out with one of those nice, classic European, statement of general principle openings, and exploits the fact that you're going to read "every man" as "everyone" (but only envision "every white man") because it's America in the 1930s. But right in the middle of the first paragraph, she switches it on you, and suddenly you're reading about women, whether you wanted to or not. It's seemingly another statement of general principle, but it contrasts with the first, and while you're still mulling that over, she hits you with the story, and you're hooked. You're going to keep on reading, even though you're going to be reading about people you (white male, 1930's American mainstream reader) have never even thought about before, and even though, before long, you're going to be wading waist deep in rural black dialect, because she's not only given you a killer story hook, she's also promised you this is going to also be a universal narrative, relevant even to you and your life.

3

Tell me why I should keep reading.

Don't waste your reader's time. This is my mantra. The first sentence should foreshadow a conflict. That is at least what I find the greatest novels always stick with.

Example:

"We should start back," Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them.

Why do you think George R.R. Martin began with this very sentence? That is what, I feel, you should be wondering at all times with every book you have in your hands. And when you re-read your first chapter, you should be able to find an answer for it.

Martin shows us that there is a conflict in such short time. It's beautiful and attentive.

It's the lack of Royce's judgement creating that conflict. He hints you a "minor issue", foreshadowing the main one: The Others are coming. Why won't they be able to escape when they come? Because they didn't head back. Because Royce's order was an insurmountable obstacle where no compromise could be made.

Further immersion= Martin also suggests that Gared and Will were not missing common sense. Royce's character is there to make us witness The Others. This scene wouldn't have happened without him. Furthermore, we know we can trust Will's point of view. Hence we feel bad for the injustice he is condemned to in the next chapter. Martin brought everything together. And that is why you keep reading.

As a rule of thumb, the first sentence should tell us why the writer decided to start the story at that specific point of the timeline. It was not randomly picked out of the bunch. It was there cause it guides us into a climax that provides the reason behind the "I don't know what this book has but I can't put it down!"

I probably added many points that people are aware when reading Martin. I hope I wasn't too verbose; I felt like I should have included my whole picture about a good first chapter.

  • Starting with a DRAMATIC ECKSHUN SEQUENCE!!! is ridiculously overdone and overrated. If the narration then goes Past Perfect to supply backstory, I throw the book out the window and never read anything by that author again.In your example, there's no reason for the reader to care about Gared (as confirmed by later events). A movie or video series can start with an extra's death scene to entice viewers with shock imagery. In a book, it does nothing and falls flat. Having the reader care about the outcome of a DRAMATIC ECKSHUN SEQUENCE is a privilege you have to earn first. – aniline Mar 31 at 13:25
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    Excuse me @aniline, where did I state to open up with a dramatic sequence showing a death scene? Yes, there is no reason to care about Gared. Not much at least. Martin is just showing to the genre's lovers something intriguing. Indeed having action in a book, right from the start, can later fall flat. But for specific genres, you need to avoid talking about how beautiful the neighbour's garden looked like, if you wanted to talk about White Walkers. You have to follow your purpose, your story. My answer is about having a minor conflict and providing a reason to keep the reader committed. – CashewsFuel Mar 31 at 13:58
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    Martin's prologue is different (in both tone and characterization) from the rest of the book and it's that way on purpose. When you go back and re-read it (which most readers will), it makes perfect sense. But when you read it the first time, it's weird and out of place. There's a risk because a lot of people put this book down. I tell people, read at least 5 chapters of GOT before you give up. But that opening sentence is low key but not and it works well. – Cyn Mar 31 at 15:59
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    @Cyn that is a really good point. At the same time without that prologue we would be committing for hundreds of pages to a medieval setup with only few fantastic elements. Will was a device to bring the narrative further. Definitely second your comment though: that prologue confuses the reader. – CashewsFuel Mar 31 at 16:17
  • Martin is brilliant in his way and that way is "stick with me and you shall be rewarded." – Cyn Mar 31 at 16:24
2

When we look at lists with opening lines, they all seem to be very different from each other and have little or nothing in common. Some can be grouped together into categories, such as stating an eternal principle ("Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."), but others clearly fall into other categories, and these categories do not overlap ("It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.").

But opening lines only appear to be different because we make the mistake of looking at them out of the context of the novels that they are a part of. Once we understand that all beginnings of all novels are hyotheses that the novels then set out to test, we understand the similarity between the first sentences.

Leo Tolstoy presents the hypothesis that all unhappy families are different in how they are unhappy, and then proceeds to narrate the stories of three families to show us that his hypothesis is true. Sylvia Plath presents the hypothesis that her derealisation and mental problems are unrelated to the society and politics of her time, and then proceeds to show us that this hypothesis is false.

So if you want to derive your opening sentence from your story, all you have to do is understand what the hypothesis is that your story serves to prove or disprove. All novels are constructed – consciously or unconsciously – on some fundamental assumption or basic premise. Your first sentence must state this premise.


In a comment to this answer @ChrisSunami has remarked that when he tries to apply my idea (that the first sentence is a hypothesis that the book tests) to actual books, he finds it difficult to find any that actually fit the pattern. I have asked him to provide some examples, and he has suggested five, from which I will discuss the three that I am familiar with.

Michael Ende's novel Die Unendliche Geschichte [The Neverending Story] begins:

enter image description here

This has been translated into English as:

enter image description here

(Literally, the German shop sign reads: "Antiquarian Book Seller, Owner: Karl Konrad Koreander".)

This opening is special, in that it is not simply text, but an image of text printed on glass and seen from the other side. Now "the other side" is not an innocent phrase when it comes to literature. You immediately think of the celtic otherworld, the mythic underworld, of the hero's journey through death and rebirth, and of classic fiction such as Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass. What the Neverending Story begins with is the motif of the mirror, and more specifically the motif of looking out at the "real world" from the mirror's other side.

Michael Ende has spoken extensively of mirrors and mirror effects in interviews and elsewhere, and even dedicated a book to them, Der Spiegel im Spiegel [The mirror in the mirror], a collection of surrealistic narratives, which, as he has stated, deals with the question: "What is reflected in a mirror which is reflected in a mirror?" The answer that Ende gives is: An infinite play of reflections which reflect each other: a neverending story.

The Neverending Story itself is such a mirror reflected in a mirror. The narrative claims that the book the reader is reading is in fact the book that the protagonist, Bastian, is shown to be reading after he finds it in the bookstore whose window we see at the beginning of the text. Bastian later finds himself to be a character in the book he is reading, adding another, deeper level, and the reader Bastian can influence what the characters in the book that he reads do.

Michael Ende wrote (in a note found in his estate) that "when two readers read the same story, they do not read the same. Each of them brings himself into the reading, his thoughts and associations, his experiences, his imagination, his intellect. You might say, the book is a mirror, in which the reader sees his own reflection."

And that is the hypothesis: That a book is a mirror in which the reader sees his own reflection, and in The Neverending Story Ende sets out test whether this idea might be true and to what extent.

Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren is a novel about reading a book that tells your own story as well. The protagonist, Kid(d), finds a notebook that opens with the same words as Dhalgren, but the story Kid(d) reads diverges from the story that we are reading (and he experiences), so Kid(d) begins to revise the text, until his revision echoes the end of Dhalgren verbatim.

Delany has stated that he suffers from delusions and spend time in a mental institution. As Wikipedia says, Delany "has repeatedly spoken and written of seeing burned-out sections of great American cities that most people didn't see, or even know exist", and that "Dhalgren is a literary exposition of all these experiences for the 'normal' reader."

Dhalgrens first sentence – "to wound the autumnal city." –, obscure and hermetic as the beginning lines are, clearly shows the reader (even if only in hindsight, when he comes to the end), the circular structure of the tale. It names the hallucinations that its author suffered from (the "burned-out sections of great American cities") and, together with the novel's end ("I have come to"), this sentence ("I have come to wound the autumnal city.") states that by writing about how he experiences reality the author, Delany/Kid(d), rewrites reality for his readers as well.

Dhalgren is a novel about writing, and its hypothesis is that life is something alike to rewriting: you take the story that is already there (the world that you are born into) and rewrite it to make it your own. Or, in the words of the novel's first sentence: You wound the world.

Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, which begins with "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.", hypothesizes – by identifying Lolita with life and sex: Lolita = life = sex – that whatever energy sustains life is given to a man by a woman through sex. If a woman doesn't gift sex to a man – or if the object of his desire is legally unavailable, as in Humbert's obsession with an underage girl –, he dies. And the novels sets out to show just that.

Nabokov has explored the same topic of hebephilia leading to a man's demise in many of his works, including his pseudo-autobiography Look at the Harelquins!. The earlier ones make the theme very clear:

In 1928 Nabokov wrote a poem named Lilith (Лилит), depicting a sexually attractive underage girl who seduces the male protagonist just to leave him humiliated in public. In 1939 he wrote a novella, Volshebnik (Волшебник), ... it takes place in Central Europe, and the protagonist is unable to consummate his passion with his stepdaughter, leading to his suicide." (from Wikipedia).

The topic in Lolita is child sexual abuse, but the hypothesis outlined in the first sentence is that if the obsessed man is not able to consummate his desire, he dies (or lives on broken).


Let me note that I didn't claim that the hypothesis is necessarily plainly stated. When you consider my answer, please keep in mind that my question was, "How to derive a first sentence from a novel." My answer to my question is that to derive a first sentence from a novel you could – and I actually believe that you should – find the hypothesis that your book is trying to answer. That is, the hypothesis is something that the author is (or should be) aware of and may, if he is so inclined, use when he wants to derive a first sentence from his story. I don't say that the hypothesis is something that a reader will always easily understand, and in fact I believe what hooks a reader is that he does not understand, but feels there is more to that sentence that what it says on the surface.

You all, who object that you cannot find this principle in the books that you have read, lose sight of what this site and this question are about. The purpose of my answer is not that you now go out and attempt to prove me wrong by finding books where this principle doesn't hold. We are not Literature.SE! What you should be doing is prove me wrong by applying it to your own writing. Take the book you are working on, see what hypothesis you are trying to test, and write a sentence that exemplifies this theme. You'll have an intriguing opening sentence that fits your book.

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    I'm afraid I downvoted. This sounds very plausible and compelling, but when I try to apply it to actual books, I find it difficult to find any that actually fit the pattern. So what you end up with is a prescriptive mandate of dubious applicability. You'll need to work harder if you want to convince me this is actually correct. – Chris Sunami May 3 '18 at 14:09
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    I (unprompted) deleted my comments on this post, in the interest of being nice. I do disagree with it, and will say for other readers I do not believe most novels center on some written or unwritten premise or theme and seek to prove or disprove it. Most best selling novels are entertainment, an imaginary experience, not a philosophical treatise. – Amadeus May 3 '18 at 19:38
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    @Cloudchaser - "to wound the autumnal city." - Delany, Dhalgren. "Less bread more taxes!" - Carroll, Sylvie & Bruno "rednaeroC darnoC lraC skooB dlO" - Ende, The Neverending Story, “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.”- Nabakov, Lolita. That's just a few randomly selected from favorites of mine, plus the Hurston book I referenced in my own answer. – Chris Sunami May 3 '18 at 19:54
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    I also have to admit, even as someone who loves philosophically motivated fiction, I'm deeply skeptical of the whole novel as thesis concept. Is that a Cloudchaser original, or is that a more widespread opinion? – Chris Sunami May 3 '18 at 20:05
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    While I remain unpersuaded by the answer, that's such a great analysis of Neverending Story that it convinced me to rescind my downvote. I look forward to your analysis of Dhalgren and Lolita with great interest. – Chris Sunami May 4 '18 at 2:18
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I don't usually write stories. But my theory about the difficulty of begining writing something is, it depends on assumptions about the audiences. If the story still subject to change, the audience may change too, and make the first line feel different.

In the case I write for myself and didn't intend to publish it anywhere, there could be 2 interpretations. 1. I'm the sole reader, and I simply skip the introduction because I know exactly what it is. 2. I don't know the readers at all yet, and it becomes much more difficult to come up with the first line than all other cases.

It appears to require much work for me to think of a general rule. But the idea is, to have some general idea about your story and your audiences first. Try to contain some hints about how your audiences should have supposedly found this work, instead of making it more meaningful in the story. It's natural that the first line doesn't provide much useful information to non-audiences.

For example, it could sound obvious, or contain details that doesn't matter in most cases. But everything the writer writes is supposedly either things the writer already know, similar to being obvious to the writer, or arbitrary for aesthetic reasons. Just not until the writer had the story in mind. The first sentence could be the most obvious or the most arbitrary thing, that the writer doesn't feel necessary to state explicitly if it wasn't the first sentence, possibly even before they had the story in mind, but as a useful baseline for the reader to expect in the rest of the work.

I come up with two bad enough examples (not a native speaker). Just write something better than these:

  • I saw a man dying after being shot by a gun. ("Someone shot him" is enough if it's elsewhere.)
  • I heard that from my grandma. (Who cares?)

Anyway it probably shouldn't be the best sentence in the whole work in the normal means. Arguably it can be the worst (but don't make your story deliberately worse, just the worst in it), and tells the audience everything else is better, if you choose this option.

You could reinterpret the options from other sources yourself similarly, such as "external principle" as "the most unfounded or unproven", "simple fact" as "the part of the settings farthest from reality", "introduce voice" as "the most ignorant or unreasonable", etc. But not every option is like this.

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I disagree that those three principles don't apply to your story.

I think you (we) need to understand your (our) story fairly deeply. Have you identified themes?

Example: For a future story, I hope to write about a society falling apart due to drug abuse. (I'm writing in the fantasy genre.) My theme might be addictions, or perseverance, or community. Or all three, or a more developed and nuanced version of any of those. I'll know it better when I get to that book and see what happens in it.

An eternal principle about community might be something as simple as "Strength in numbers." And the opening sentence could be ... off the top of my head -

Oscar stood in front of rehab, addiction screaming to run, but he'd never destroy this demon on his own.

I'd advise you to find your themes.

If you don't like that approach, or eternal principle, you can try the same setup but use paired opposites.

The drug took him to the heights of ecstasy and the depths of perdition.

Or a simple statement of fact.

Oscar was an addict.

All of these opening lines could work. Each is a promise to the reader as to what sorts of things are the moving forces in the story.

It sounds as though you've got loads of possibilities for your opening line. Have you tested them on readers? Do that. There are websites where you can get feedback. You will find that what works for one person does not work for another. And, your choice will depend on genre too.

Also, people are diverse. I think it is a mistake to go too deeply 'left hemisphere' in these efforts (but I think the exercise you're doing is a good one and I do them too). I think you can end up with a story that is less unique and more like the others. It might sell better - but you might be missing the very people that would have enjoyed the story that started with the line you felt organically should start your story.

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