“Find the person with the bleeding neck!”
That’s what the elder copywriter said to his young protege.
First lines, like this example, are crucial to grabbing readers and convincing them to read your story.
Have you ever browsed your local bookstore, selected a book from the shelf, opened to the first page, and read the first sentence? If that sentence hooked you, you probably read the next, and the next, until you turned the page. Maybe you even kept reading to page two or three. Maybe you went so far as to purchase the book and bring it home. What made you decide to do so?
That first sentence compelled you to keep reading.
As a reader, if the first sentence isn’t spellbinding, why would we believe the rest of the book would be any different?
While it may seem counterintuitive, spending substantial time on sentence one can save you copious amounts of time later.
Compare getting that first sentence right to starting off on the correct trail. If you want to take a group of friends to the summit of a particular mountain, but you start off on the wrong trail, you’ll either never get there, or it will take you way longer.
Comparatively, if you want to take the reader on an amazing experience that brings them to the climax of your story and propels them to the ending, but you don’t grab them from sentence one, they’re either never going to read to the climax, or it will take a lot more convincing to get them there.
In this article we cover:
- What is a good sentence to start a story?
- Why the starting sentence of your story matters.
- Examples of story starting sentences.
Let’s dive in!
What is a good sentence to start a story?
The sentence you start your story with depends on the genre you write, so beginning sentences vary greatly from writer to writer.
Regardless of what genre you write, there are several key tips to consider including in your first sentence. Look up examples in your genre, take note of what principles are included, and consider how those same principles could set your book up for success.
Tip one: A statement or principle.
Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina begins with a simple statement that sets up the rest of the book. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Using a statement or principle to begin your story alludes to the theme that will be threaded throughout. If you want to begin your book in this way, carefully consider your theme and what type of statement will help build on this theme.
Tip two: Establish voice.
Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale makes use of first person to do so. “If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are.”
Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, establishing voice and maintaining it throughout your book is crucial. If you can get this right in the first sentence, you’re already doing an amazing job.
Tip three: Set the scene.
Amor Towles, in A Gentleman in Moscow, does so with his first line. “At half past six on the twenty-first of June 1922, when Count Alexander Ilyrich Rostov was escorted through the gates of the Kremlin onto Red Square, it was glorious and cool.”
If you choose to set the scene with your opening sentence, do so carefully. Avoid an information dump of everything you think your reader needs to know, and avoid describing every part of your scene. Simply use your first sentence to create context for the reader, and then jump into your story.
Tip four: Plunge your character into trouble.
DiAnn Mills begins her novel Fatal Strike with, “Special agent Lea Riesel scanned the headlines on her phone.”
Engaging today’s readers from line one is crucial. If you can plunge your protagonist into terrible trouble from the first sentence, you’re much more likely to bring your readers along for the rest of your story.
Tip five: Establish the goal.
Suzanne Collins does so in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. “Coriolanus released the fistful of cabbage into the pot of boiling water and swore that one day it would never pass his lips again.”
This small choice sets up the rest of the novel and influences the entirety of the protagonist’s character arc.
Tip six: State a fact.
James Clear, in his book Atomic Habits, starts with, “The fate of British Cycling changed one day in 2003.”
Stating a fact begs the question, Why is this particular fact important? Readers’ curiosity is piqued, and they will hopefully continue reading to find the answer to their question.
Why the starting sentence of your story matters.
The first line of your story matters because it encapsulates the aesthetic of the rest of your story. Your first sentence is written to hook the right readers. If climbing into the car is the first step to a road trip adventure, nailing that first sentence is the first step to your story adventure.
Your first sentence matters because it engages the reader, essentially buckling them into an adventure where you have invested countless hours.
Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, it’s absolutely essential to grab that reader while maintaining genre rules. Your genre is a guide to what type of first sentence to write, but you get to choose which tools to use to create that standout sentence.
Examples of story starting sentences
Below are more examples of first sentences, categorize according to his on your own. Well you may only right one or two of the below genres, take notes from the other categories. You never know what may spark an idea for your writing. Collecting tips from famous first lines can help you create the best first line possible.
Sentences to start a fantasy story.
J. R. R. Tolkien started The Hobbit with a simple line that introduces his protagonist. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
What’s a hobbit? Why is a hobbit living in a hole? These questions propel the reader forward.
In The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien begins with a line setting the scene: “When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.”
Sentences to start a science fiction story.
Veronica Roth begins her novel, Chosen Ones, with, “The drain looked the same every time, with all the people screaming as they ran away from the giant dark cloud of chaos but never running fast enough.” This sets the scene while also establishing conflict and trouble.
Victoria Aveyard begins her novel Glass Sword with, “I flinch.” This is one of the shortest opening lines possible, but it establishes that the protagonist is in trouble and makes the reader want to find out why.
Good first sentences to start a love story.
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice beings, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
Notice how Austen begins her first line with a statement, and literally says so.
To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, by Jenny Han, begins, “Josh is Margot’s boyfriend, but I guess you could say my whole family is a little in love with him.”
Good sentences to start a sad story.
John Green’s The Fault in our Stars begins, “Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I never 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.”
The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, begins, “First the colors. Then the humans. That’s how I see things. Or at least, how I try.” The protagonist’s positive point of view is clearly stated, while the writer also sets a melancholy tone.
Sentences to start a horror story.
It, by Stephen King, begins, “The terror that would not end for another 28 years, if it ever did, began so far as I can know or tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.”
His novel, Pet Sematary, begins, “Louis Creed, who had lost his father at three and who had never known a grandfather, never expected to find a father as he entered his middle age, but that was exactly what happened…” King layers in quite a bit of setups that demand later payoffs in this opener.
Provocative sentences to start a story.
Sylvia Plath begins The Bell Jar with, “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” The dichotomy in this sentence grabs readers’ attention and brings up many questions.
Below are a few more famous examples:
- Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested. —Franz Kafka, The Trial
- 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
- They shoot the white girl first. —Toni Morrison, Paradise
- Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu. —Ha Jin, Waiting
As you work on your first sentence, don’t underestimate the power of brainstorming. You could easily fill pages with first lines before you find the exact line for your book.
Remember that all writing is rewriting, and your first line will likely evolve as you write the book itself. You may write a standout first line, reach the end of your story, and you realize a different sentence will add much more power. If you need to change your first line later on, that is perfectly acceptable.
Writing takes practice, and it can feel monotonous at times, but the more you practice, the easier it will come.
Just as you draw inspiration from previous books, draw inspiration from previous first lines. Be careful not to copy other writers’ first lines, but use that inspiration to influence your process.
While there is a definite art to creating a standout first line, you are the writer and you get to make the final call. Research, brainstorm, and then get to work.
Your first line is waiting to be written!