Anyone who tells you not to judge a book by its cover or that first impressions don’t count is someone who either didn’t listen to given advice or knows they messed up and haven’t yet fixed the problem and are desperate to make a sale. When it comes to books, first impressions are everything. The cover is what will catch the eye, then they’ll read the blurb on the back, but then any discerning reader is going to open to that first page and look to be drawn in.
First sentences are everything.
But it isn’t only the first few words; undoubtedly, you need to back them up with a great story. I like to think that it isn’t just the one line, but maybe a few… the first idea, if you will. It’s different in a movie, where we have visuals to set the story, an actor’s expression to lead us to their character. With a song, we have the opening notes. For a writer, we need to use our words wisely.
We can set the tone of another world seemingly with ease:
- It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. ~ George Orwell, 1984
- In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort. ~ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
Or we can introduce character right away:
- If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. ~ J.D. Salinger, Catcher In the Rye
- You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter. ~ Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
- It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. ~ Paul Auster, City of Glass
- It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. ~ Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
If you’re going to reveal the objective upfront, keep it simple.
- Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. ~ Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
- Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person. ~ Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups
And sometimes the words, the syntax, are just interesting enough to pull us in without doing any of the above:
- You better not never tell nobody but God. ~ Alice Walker, The Color Purple
So, you may be wondering what my own experience is with the first sentence. My genre is primarily personal essay – it’s not a lot of time to hook the reader. I’ve got about 1500-2000 words to get my point across, and I need them interested right from the beginning. My style can be anything from quirky to profound and often is a blend of both. My first sentence will set the tone.
In my first collection of essays, I strung together 17 years of writing. That was nearly half of my life. A lot had happened and when I began to edit pieces I’d written that long ago, I decided to keep the voice of that younger woman as much as possible, sometimes sacrificing the craft I’d learned later on. In the earlier essays in the beginning of the book show an immaturity and somewhat naiveté that only a 20something can have. In American Girl, I began with “Deep down, we all want to be smart, funny, strong and sexy. It’s in all of us. We totally demand respect like Aretha, cry like Patsy, and shake it all of like Madonna.” By the end of the book, I am just into my 40s, which is an entirely different perspective. In the piece titled Bridges, I wrote “Nobody really knows how close I came to death in this past year.” At the time of writing both of those, I had no idea that they would be linked together in a book someday. Each was written with the intent of jumping in, having my say and getting out in very short order. Once I put them all together, I realized that to ask the reader to overlook the simplistic angst of my essays, I had to give them a super strong hook. I prefaced all of it with a retrospective piece I’d actually written in 1999 but altered to give it the flavor of who I was at the time of creating the book.
- I’m leaving my childhood behind today, a long time coming at twenty-eight years old, and for the last time will be walking through the door where I learned how to become a person. And I’m terrified.
Keep in mind this trick whenever you need to jump start your creativity. It’s called “The Knife Trick” but you don’t really need a knife. Pick up any book around you, turn to a random page and with your eyes closed, place your finger on a sentence. Copy that sentence and let the words flow from there. Don’t edit as you go, don’t over think it, just let the words tumble. It could be garbage at the end of it, or it could be the basis of your next great work. Even if you only create one great sentence from somebody else’s, that’s okay. Be inspired!
Keep a journal with you whenever possible. Sometimes a great first line comes at you when you aren’t expecting it, so be prepared to make a note of it. If you don’t have pen and paper handy, use your smart phone. They all have a notebook or a record feature, use it. Many of my best first lines or prompts are scribbled on cocktail napkins.
And always remember that first impressions really do count for a whole lot.