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I am sure I read somewhere that you need a gripping opening sentence to a story. I've been conscious of that claim when reading since and I find most of my favourite authors (King, Asimov, Iain M. Banks) don't really open their books this way but somehow draw the reader in without really seeming to do anything... King especially, I suppose this is part of his skill.

Is there any 'rule of thumb' for short stories and novels about how long the author has to 'convince' the reader to stay? Is spending ages agonisingly crafting your first sentence sensible?

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  • I suspect that grabbing people with the first sentence was more important when people discovered books by going to the bookstore and reading the first (few) sentence(s).
    – user54131
    May 17, 2022 at 12:09
  • Who in their right mind reads just the first few sentences of a book before deciding to read it or buy it? All the authors and publishers work to make that first bit interesting, then after you've bought it they don't care. Read later parts of the book. Skim it. See what it's like all the way through before spending your money and your time. Would you buy a pig in a poke? Probably not. Why would you intentionally "put a book in poke" when buying it just to avoid the dreaded spoiler. A book that is ruined by a spoiler wasn't much anyway.
    – JRE
    May 17, 2022 at 14:26
  • Chances are the first sentence will be the first thing people see. Maybe they'll open it at random somewhere else, but you can't predict where that'll be. And maybe they'll start with the first sentence but read on, but maybe they won't bother. If there's a place where you have the best chance of hooking the reader's attention, it's the start. Of course you could try and make every sentence equally compelling so it doesn't matter where they open the book - good luck with that.
    – Stuart F
    May 20, 2022 at 22:47

2 Answers 2

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I don't think first sentences are that important; other than being clear and understandable. In fact, I roll my eyes at pretentious first sentences, or those in which the author seems focused on having a killer first sentence.

Virtually all readers begin expecting to learn enough to get into the story. The amount of credit you get is highest on the first page, even the first few pages.

What you need to begin is an interesting scene.

Advice I've gotten from agents is to skip any exposition, or background, and never, ever start a story with a main hero idle and contemplating. Agents say never start with a prologue; they might be well done but they are a big red flag. They say start with a scene, with your hero, and get them interacting with others in the first three pages. No contemplation of the past, or how they got there, get to at least mild conflict fast.

That is what makes the scene interesting; they have some agenda. They wake up, there was a power failure at night, their alarm did not go off, they are late to work. Something is happening.

Don't look at old classics, ancient novelists had far more leeway. In modern novels, we get to know the characters through their troubles and actions; through scenes. Not by being told about their traits, or proclivities, or talents -- We see them in action.

That's your job, you've got about 750 words (3 pages) to get your main character talking to somebody else about something they want to achieve. Even if it is a throwaway, non-plot-central thing, like getting a plumber, or getting their lunch order right, whatever. A regular life problem is fine. They can't get their regular Apple Fritter for breakfast, somebody dropped the tray of apple fritters on the floor.

The first sentence doesn't have to grab anybody; you have all the credit in the world at that point, all you have to do is get into the scene and not bore the reader.

"Brenda always got off the bus one stop before her office, to buy her morning coffee and an apple fritter."

That is the moment before something unexpected happens. (No apple fritters today). And some little part of Brenda's character is revealed by how she reacts to the unexpected.

An interactive opening scene, and what exactly it reveals about your character, is important. Choose or devise that carefully. It can happen any day or night of the year. It shouldn't be too over the top, not typically life threatening. But preferably, you want to reveal something important about your character.

So IMO the first scene is very important and the first look at your character, but the first sentence does not have to be particularly outstanding.

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"Call me Ishmael." opens Moby Dick.

On its own, standing there, by its lonesome, it's okay, but to me, it is not a wowzer. But, it serves a terrific purpose. It sets the tone for the narration of the piece.

Then, we have this from "A Tale of Two Cities" by Charles Dickens

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way--in short, the period was so far like the present period that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."

And, I am like Wow!

So do you need a baller first sentence? No! Can they be terrific and awesome if you do have a great first sentence that took minutes or days to write? Absolutely, yes.

The hugest thing to keep in your mind is that every novel you've ever read by anyone was the result of the writer putting it "paper", then revising it and revising it until it was the best they could be bothered to do.

So spend hours trying to write a great first sentence. No! times a thousand. Write it, write the next and so on until you reach the last sentence. Then come back, now that you know exactly what happens in the story and look at that first sentence, and make it better. Then, do it to the next sentence, and so on. Then, do it again and again.

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