The second most important sentence in your book

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Copywriting (my day job) will never be as rewarding as fiction writing, but they share some similarities in craft. For example, the headline.

“Headline” doesn’t just refer to the large type on the front of a newspaper; it can mean the main line of text on any ad, billboard, webpage, or whatever. I probably spend more time writing headlines than anything else, mainly because they’re difficult. I can easily write a paragraph in fifteen minutes, but I might take hours to find the right headline for one ad. Why?

Lacking a striking image, the headline is the most important part of the ad. It must capture the attention of the audience and compel them to read the rest of the ad. It’s not enough to be well-written. Good writing by itself is not compelling. The same applies to the first sentence of your book.*

The first sentence of your book is the make-or-break moment for many readers, when they choose to keep reading, or to put it down forever.

So, a few pointers:

  • If you haven’t spent more time on your first sentence than on any other sentence in your book, you’re doing it wrong.
  • Scenic description, no matter how poetic, isn’t compelling.
  • Fight or chase scenes, no matter how action-packed, aren’t compelling if you don’t know anything about the characters involved.
  • What is compelling? It’s hard to put a finger on it, but it is usually weird, surprising, insightful, contradictory, or witty.

Examples!

In the fading afternoon light, the helicopter skimmed low along the coast, following the line where the dense jungle met the beach.

               -The Lost World, Michael Crichton

She seemed to float above the ghostly evening mist like a menacing beast rising from the primeval ooze.

               -Sahara, Clive Cussler

Eragon knelt in a bed of trampled reed grass and scanned the tracks with a practiced eye.

               -Eragon, Christopher Paolini

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.

                -Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte

Those all sound quite nice. But compare them to the following:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

               -Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell

All my life, I’ve wanted to go to Earth.

               -Podkayne of Mars, Robert A. Heinlein

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

               -The Go Between, L.P. Hartley

This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it.

               -William Goldman on The Princess Bride, by S. Morgenstern.

There was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.

               -The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis

Which ones make you want to keep reading? How does your first sentence measure up?

*I call the first sentence in a book the second most important sentence because in keeping with the philosophy that we owe our readers satisfactory closure, the last sentence of the book is actually the most important. But I digress.

About Stephanie Orges

Stephanie is an award-winning copywriter, aspiring novelist, and barely passable ukulele player. Here, she offers writing prompts, tips, and moderate-to-deep philosophical discussions. You can also find her on and Pinterest.
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34 Comments

  1. Like. Like. Like. Love. LoVe. LOVE.

    Great post. This is why I love your blog. It’s always so helpful.

  2. Great post! I know that poetic description isn’t compelling to most readers, but there are still some of us out there who enjoy it (for the same reasons we enjoy traditional poetry itself)! Clearly, though, in the first lines of a novel, straight description usually won’t get the job done.

    Thanks for the pointers :)

  3. Now I always thought of the first sentence as the most important and that is through years of that being grilled in my head by countless teachers and other writers. The notion that it is actually the last sentence is good food for thought! Thanks!

  4. When browsing books, I read the first sentence, and if that is engaging, I pick one random paragraph in the middle of the book to make sure the first sentence was not a fluke. This always works for me, but as they say, one needs to account for variance in tastes.

  5. First sentence is make or break. (Actually, first paragraph or two.) It only takes a few seconds to lose interest in scenic description. The first sentence has to compete with the snappy title which brought you to the book in the first place, and the jacket blurb telling us how suspenseful this book is going to be. Then…skimming helicopters and trampled grass? Yawn! Maybe works in a movie, but not in a book.

  6. Great title. You got me. I thought, wrongly, that you’d place the first sentence as the most important. But I believe you to be correct that is should be the last. Great bit of info.

  7. Awesome! I love a killer opening line, but it is so easy to forget its importance in the flow of prose and the excitement of the next idea, the next twist over the next page. Thank you!

  8. Very sound advice. First sentences are something I like to play with from time to time, and I appreciate the comparisons you offer.

    Enjoyed reading,
    D

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  10. Ah, the challenge! So, so difficult. Excuse me while I go beat my head against my laptop.

  11. That depends on the keyboard and the shape of the laptop. My keyboard is pretty cushy, but the casing of the laptop is metal, so… ow.

  12. Aim? Who aims when beating their heads against laptops?

  13. Thanks! I will e-mail them when I get home from work. Twenty minutes before I punch the clock and start my day. I think I will get some coffee.

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  15. Firstly, I agree that the last sentence is probably the most important; or at the least, the ending of the book is the most important part. It is easier to forgive a weak beginning than a weak ending; a strong ending redeems what came before it, while a poor ending tarnishes what came before. (Hence the special loathing for poor sequels and the special pleasure in superior ones, whether films or books.)

    Now, as to the worthiness of landscape description in a first sentence. The key is whether or not the setting is hugely important to your story. For instance, in The Eagle of the Ninth (and indeed in most of Sutcliff’s books) the setting is practically another character. That particular story could not be set in Italy or the future; versions of it could be, but the unique story that Sutcliff was trying to tell had to be set in that period of Roman Britain. Earlier, and Rome’s presence isn’t strong enough to warrant Esca’s confusion over the falling of his culture. Later, and Rome’s decline would undermine Marcus’ confidence in his culture. Their relationship is affected by the political setting, but also by the natural landscape, which is either domestic or wild, or somewhere in between.

    So it makes some sense for Sutcliff to begin her book describing a “British trackway” that the Romans have built up with all sorts of stone and paved trappings, but is still at heart something native and wild, “unchanged from its old estate.” The first time you read her first sentence, it may seem like mere description. But in actuality, the themes of culture clash and the relationship between Marcus and Esca are symbolized in that Romanized road which is really still a British trackway. She’s very concerned with a culture’s relationship to its natural surroundings. To me, that sort of description is fascinating from the start.

    So I’d encourage you not to create such a dichotomy between “grabbing attention” and “setting the scene.” They can be the same thing. It may not be as easy to pull of well as starting with dialogue, but in the hands of a master it’s every bit as effective, possibly moreso. Richard Adams starts with landscape in Watership Down. Steinbeck does it in The Grapes of Wrath. Walter Scott does it in Ivanhoe.

    Again, these are examples where the setting is hugely important to the themes and characters. I’m not saying this is the only good way to start a book — the great examples you list above are just that: really great starts. But there are many excellent kinds of first sentences, and I don’t want to exclude any.

    • First, I don’t call dialogue, in and of itself, a good choice for a first sentence. It depends on what is being said.

      So the same argument should work for scenic description. It depends on what is being described. The Orwell example above is technically scenic description, but it grabs attention because the clocks were striking thirteen. There’s something out of place. It doesn’t fit our twelve-hour time and if it was simply military time it would have said “thirteen hundred.” We know the world we are entering is different from our own and our natural curiosity pushes us onward.

      You make an excellent argument for Eagle’s first sentence mirroring Marcus and Esca’s relationship–so excellent you almost convinced me, especially since the beginning has greater meaning the second time you read it. But re-reading it, even looking for that, I can’t see it as strongly as you argue for it. It’s too subtle. if I’m coming into the book without much pre-knowledge of the Roman/British contrast (which I’m guessing is the case with most readers) it doesn’t stand out to me at all. I don’t feel the conflict between new Roman order and old British wildness that I should, under your argument, feel. The Roman descriptions of broadened and metalled and strengthened lose their potential when paired with the word “roughly.” “Otherwise unchanged from its old estate” is rather passive, and winding and wilderness are not strong enough to give me a picture of wild Britain. Subtlety is good, but not to accomplish what you are suggesting.

      My point is, I have seen many many books begin with scenic description. And no matter how different the scenes are from book to book, they feel like the same beginning to me. Certainly many of them are great books. A great book doesn’t guarantee a great first sentence, and a great first sentence does not guarantee a great book. But I look for both. I want some indication from the beginning that this book is different. And ninety-nine times out of a hundred, scenic description does not do that for me.

      My conclusion to our difference of opinion: either I am jaded and impatient, or you are arguing from a bias for Sutcliff and the time period, which is already familiar to you. But I suspect it is a little of both.

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