How many times have you picked a random show on Netflix, tried it, and then given up because it just didn’t quite hit? Those first five minutes or so are vital, and showrunners know it. A strong opening scene is everything. If you’re not hooked, you’re not going to keep watching, and once you’ve clicked off, there’s a big chance you’ll never come back.
It’s not so different when you’re writing a book! Readers make judgments super quickly. Your opening scene is no exception.
First they’ll judge your cover and whatever excerpt or blurb you’ve got on the back, and then you’ve got that first chapter or prologue to catch them.
Think about the last time you went to a bookstore. Even after a cover caught your eye, even after the synopsis sounded pretty good, how many books did you put back on the shelf when the first few paragraphs just didn’t land?
In this article, we’ll teach you how to write a stellar first sentence to hook your reader and ensure that they not only buy your book, but stay invested all the way through!
This guide on how to write a strong opening sentence covers:
- Asking a question
- Hooking your reader's emotions
- Starting in media res
- Making it matter
- Examples of strong opening sentences
- Why is the first sentence important?
- Establishing tone
- Engaging your reader
- Introducing key concepts
How to Write a Strong Opening Sentence
In the same way that a compelling opening shot will hook a moviegoer or Netflix-scroller, a compelling opening sentence will hook your reader.
That feels like a lot of pressure! But it’s not that hard. Here are a few ways to catch your reader’s interest right off the bat:
1. Ask a question
I don’t mean to literally ask your reader a question–this would probably come off as a little cheesy, and you almost never address the reader in a fictional narrative. I mean do so with a scenario in the opening scene to add mystery and intrigue to your story.
When I say ‘ask a question,’ what I mean is to present a question to your reader. Make them wonder what the heck is going on, and make them want to find out.
This is especially effective in short or flash fiction, when it’s important to introduce the central conflict as soon as possible. But in all forms of fiction, long-form or short-form, getting into some conflict will get your reader on board.
2. Hook your reader’s emotions
Humans are empathetic–this is why we read in the first place! We want to hear about what people are going through and watch them overcome insurmountable obstacles to win wars, fall in love, whatever the case may be.
Open with a strong emotion. Describe the sadness or delight a character feels, or the strong emotion of the current scene. This will help your reader relate to your character quickly, and once they’ve related to your character, they’ll want to follow them into the story.
3. Start in medias res
This one’s my personal favorite.
In medias res means, roughly, ‘in the middle of the action.’ Drop your reader right in the middle of the good stuff. Maybe your rogue is mid-heist, and things are looking sketchy. This is a strong opening scene, you see this often in Hollywood, they then reveal it as a flashback to start the story.
Maybe your protagonist is in the middle of being fired from their big-city job, which will send them back into the arms of their small-town crush.
4. Make it matter
Whatever you do, don’t make it boring. If the first sentence of your story is a piece of exposition, or a long-winded description of landscape, your reader’s gonna get bored and find something else.
Remember: readers are attached to people and their emotions. If you can’t open with conflict, at least open with people facing some sort of dilemma, and preferably feeling some kind of way about it.
Related: 4 Exposition Mistakes
Examples of Strong Opening Sentences to Learn From
One of the best ways to learn how to do something well is to watch how it's been done by professionals. There's a ton you can learn from these opening lines, just don't copy them exactly (obviously). Remember the opening scene creates space for dialogue, development, and questions from the reader.
The Autobiography of Henry VIII With Notes by His Fool, Will Somers by Margaret George:
“My dearest Catherine: I am dying. Or rather, about to die–there is a slight (though unconsoling) difference.”
Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut:
“All this happened, more or less.”
American Gods by Neil Gaiman:
“Shadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough, and looked don’t-f***-with-me-enough that his biggest problem was killing time. So he kept himself in shape, and taught himself coin tricks, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife.”
Twilight by Stephenie Meyer:
“I'd never given much thought to how I would die – though I'd had reason enough in the last few months – but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.”
Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment by James Patterson:
“Congratulations. The fact you’re reading this means you’ve taken one giant step closer to surviving till your next birthday. Yes, you, standing there leafing through these pages. Do not put this book down. I’m dead serious–your life could depend on it.”
Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment by James Patterson:
“The funny thing about facing imminent death is that it really snaps everything else into perspective. Take right now, for instance.”
The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan:
“Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood. If you’re reading this because you think you might be one, my advice is: close this book right now. Believe whatever lie your mom or dad told you about your birth, and try to live a normal life.”
The Secret History by Donna Tartt:
“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we began to realize the gravity of our situation.”
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein:
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
Bunny by Mona Awad:
“We call them Bunnies because that is what they call each other. Seriously. Bunny.”
The Monster of Elendhaven by Jennifer Giesbricht:
“For a long time, he didn’t have a name. What he had were white long fingers that hooked into purses and a mouth that told easy lies.”
Nevernight by Jay Kristoff:
“People often sh*t themselves when they die.”
This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal el-Mohtar and Max Gladstone:
“When Red wins, she stands alone. Blood slicks her hair. She breathes out steam in the last night of this dying world.”
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides:
“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”
The H8 U Give by Angie Thomas:
“I shouldn’t have come to this party. I’m not even sure I belong at this party. That’s not on some bougie shit, either. There are just some places where it’s not enough to be me. Neither version of me.”
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green:
“Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I barely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.”
Paradise by Toni Morrion:
“They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they take their time.”
Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones:
“My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist.”
The Martian by Andy Weir:
“I’m pretty much f*cked.”
Why is the first sentence important?
So, okay, what’s the deal with all this ‘first sentence’ stuff anyway? Surely it can’t be that important to have a stellar first sentence in a book with about a billion sentences. You must pay close attention to this tendency to dismiss parts of the process. Your opening scene needs to be strong because without it, your audience may lose interest and never get to your great scenes later.
Well, it is…and it isn’t
When it comes to novels, it’s fair to say that your first sentence doesn’t necessarily have to be an eye-catching, one-of-a-kind showstopper. And in fact, putting way too much effort on a standout first sentence can read as forced and mess with the flow.
It’s really more about your first paragraph than your first sentence, and even then, it’s more about your first page than your first paragraph.
However: thinking carefully about that very first sentence will set you up for a better first page. You want to start in the best possible spot, and focusing on your first sentence will help you do that!
Establishing tone in your opening sentence
In almost all of the examples I listed, especially the ones which open Young Adult novels, the sentences had a very strong tone. Your first sentence is a great place to establish what sort of a tone you’ll take for the rest of the piece–it helps you start strong, and it gives your reader a great idea of what to expect in the coming pages.
Is your book funny? Open with something snarky, like James Patterson does with Maximum Ride. Is it introspective? Open with something moody, like Stephanie Meyer does with Twilight. Let the reader get a taste of what you’ll be serving them!
Engaging your reader
Most obviously, your first sentence will help you hook your reader. If you can get them on board to read the first sentence, they’ll be on board to read the first paragraph, and once they’ve turned the first page for more? You’re in the clear.
Look at openers like Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief. He starts off with a clear voice, which the reader can expect through the rest of the series, and he starts with a warning for the reader to put the book down. Any childhood fan of Percy Jackson can tell you that it was reading that warning that got them hooked for good!
It’s true that some books are slow burns, and readers get invested over time. But you’ve got the opportunity to grab their attention on the first page, so why not use it?
Introducing key concepts in your book's opening
As I mentioned earlier, it’s not always possible to establish the core conflict of your novel on that first page. Sometimes that conflict simply hasn’t had the chance to come about yet! In The Goldfinch, for example, we can’t really get into the conflict until the bomb goes off in the museum, and it would be a little weird to start with that.
That being said: you can still use your first sentence to introduce the key themes and concepts you’ll discuss in your novel. This is par for the course on writing a novel.
Twilight, for example, deals intensely with Bella’s mortality, so we open with her confronting it head-on. The H8 U Give introduces Starr’s internal conflict–the book goes on to deal with how she struggles with her identity as a Black teenager, and in that first paragraph, she’s talking about the different versions of herself and how she feels about them.
What’s the best opening line you’ve ever read? What’s the best one you’ve ever written? Let us know in the comments!