How important is the first sentence, really?

You’ve seen Nathan Bransford’s contest, right? The one where you submit the first paragraph of your work in progress and fabulous prizes ensue for the winner? Yeah, about that. I submitted the first paragraph of mine. What a painful process! After reading 800+ submissions, I realized a) I have a lot of work to do, and b) a lot of first paragraphs are the same. No, crazy similar. Like, if I was grading them, I would make the class turn them in on to make sure they didn’t plagiarize each other.

Ok, maybe they’re not thesame-thesame.  But close.

And it made me paranoid. So many submissions I skimmed by reading only the first line! And then I thought–what if an agent only read the first line of my novel and hated it?! So many submissions, so little time.  I don’t want to be skimmed over!

Clearly, this Bransford fellow is one tricksy guy.

So, because I have been crazy paranoid and looking over my shoulder (and because I’m going to a writer’s group for the first time tomorrow) I decided to post early.

What is my post?

A list of the first lines from some of my favorite and/or recently published novels. No 18th century or Romantic novels need apply. I’m not submitting my novel to John Murray.


“Falling, in her final moments, Daniel’s wife carries in her chest a heart burdened by the weight of her love for another man.”

“I first saw Hundreds Hall when I was ten years old.”

“It was November.”

“The story that follows is one I never intended to commit to paper.”

“It was love at first sight.”

“I first saw the photograph on a hot January afternoon in my mother’s bedroom.”

“The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace, the fifty-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass.”

“Last December a woman entered my apartment who looked exactly like my wife.”

“Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians.”

“Two boys stood in the Prince Consort Gallery, and looked down on a third.”


Some brilliant, some very good, and some that are instant cliches (no, don’t make me find the accent mark!). I mean, it’s all where they go from there, right? Like, “It was love at first sight.” First line of Catch-22. We know it’s not a romance novel! It’s satire, funny (hysterical, actually, but let’s not split hairs, shall we?).  But what if your reader never gets that far? What if they give up because the name “Yossarian” is just too weird?

This book thing is going to be harder than I thought.

Note, gentle readers, none of these start with a quote or include the word “kill” in the first line. Some have death, yes, or rather, death that’s almost happening. On the cusp.  But we’re not there yet. Give the novel time to grow, to breathe.

You can always kill them in the second sentence.

(In case you were wondering, the novels are The Marriage Artist [Winer], The Little Stranger [Waters], The Thirteenth Tale [Setterfield], The Historian [Kostova], Catch-22 [Heller], The Ghost Writer [Harwood], The Monsters of Templeton [Groff], Atmospheric Disturbances [Galchen], Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell [Clarke], and The Children’s Book [Byatt]. Yeah I like gothic-esque fiction. Got any more?)


One thought on “How important is the first sentence, really?

  1. Heather E says:

    It's very instructive to read down a bunch of first lines like that. It makes it obvious whether tone and structure are working together for that magic effect or not.I'm thinking I should collect a few of my own favorites, then stick my first line in the middle and see how it stacks up.So glad you came to group!

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