Here’s the thing about introductory sentences: on their own, they don’t make bestsellers.
Shocking, right? What about those memorable first lines from the books that we all know and love?
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”–Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
“Call me Ishmael.”–Herman Melville, Moby Dick
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”–Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Did those iconic sentences not play a part in their respective books’ successes?
Before you bring out your pitchforks, let us explain…
Yes, they did play a part but were not the direct cause.
You can write the wittiest opening line ever penned in the history of the written word, but it alone can’t make up for a book’s lack of substance. A boring book is still a boring book no matter how good its introductory sentence is.
Famous opening lines like the ones we listed above only achieved fame when their books started to gain renown and widespread recognition from the reading public. There are no famous first lines from not-so-popular books.
So, why is this so important? And why do writers spend so much time and creative energy on that singular opening line alone?
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What is the importance of an introductory sentence?
Because an introductory line does play a very important role in a book’s existence, and this is a role that it MUST do well.
The introductory sentence’s sole purpose is to make people read the next line. No more, no less.
In a bookstore where there are thousands of books, with each book containing a few thousand words, the introductory sentence is often the only place where you need to “hook” your reader.
If it fails, then goodbye book. But if it succeeds, the reader will move on to the next line. And the line after that.
Before you know it, they’ve reached the end of the introduction. Since time was already invested into reading this first chapter, maybe they’ll move on to the second one. And the third.
See where this is going?
That first line better be good.
Introductory sentences examples and tips from popular authors
Ursula Le Guin, famed speculative fiction author and feminist, writes in her 1988 essay “The Fisherwoman’s Daughter”: “…first sentences are doors to worlds.”
Stephen King also shares a similar view. In an interview with Joe Fassler from The Atlantic, he narrates:
“The best first line I ever wrote is the opening of ‘Needful Things.’ Printed by itself on a page in 20-point type: “You’ve been here before.” All there by itself on one page, inviting the reader to keep reading.”
Although worded differently, both writers say the same thing: first sentences are like invitations. That’s the writer inviting you in through the doors of the worlds they have created. That’s the writer luring you into the web they have so intricately woven that you feel obliged to read the book to its very end.
That’s a lot of pressure resting on the shoulders of one line.
How do you go about writing such a sentence?
Introductory sentences examples and tips on how to write them
As playwright George Bernard Shaw put it, “Imitation is not just the sincerest form of flattery – it’s the sincerest form of learning.”
So that’s how we learn – by imitating the masters .
Below is a list of common methods for opening lines that most authors use in their work, as well as some introductory sentences examples from books that perfectly capture how each particular method is used:
Introduce tension right from the start.
People love conflict and intrigue. Tension is what makes the most mundane of scenes gripping and exciting.
Imagine a couple at a cafe. The man is on his phone idly scrolling away, while the woman stares at him blankly. Both of them not talking to each other, their food on the table untouched and ignored.
That’s an opening scene as a viewer might see it. Nothing remotely exciting about it.
But in the hands of a good author, this humdrum scene can be transformed into a tense, emotion-filled one.
In the first sentence we can write…
“They say that people who cheat on their partners lack self-esteem, and Alice is here staring at a man who probably has his self-esteem down into the negatives.”
Or if the cheating is happening the other way around…
“Ed knows that Alice has been sleeping around with his best friend since last summer, but at this point he just doesn’t give a damn anymore.”
Without even reading the rest of the sentences in the chapter, the tension introduced in the first sentence alone is enough to get your readers gripping their seats. Now we know what’s going on here. Now we know what these two characters’ feelings for each other are.
Here’s a great example from a popular YA novel:
“Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house…
…and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.”–John Green, The Fault in our Stars
This is an opening line that is both vulnerable and relatable. There’s a whole lot of interesting generational tension between the narrator and his mother in there too.
Make the reader want to start asking questions.
Humans are naturally curious. Pose a rather odd scenario in front of them and they immediately want to start asking questions.
Because that’s just how it is. Once our interest is piqued in just the right way, we can’t help ourselves from asking the hows and whys of something.
It’s a popular technique because it works so well for both fiction and non-fiction.
“I am worried.”–Mortiz Davidesko, Change the Story, Save the World
We bet that the first thing that pops into your mind after reading that introductory sentence is “Worried about what?” That line naturally leads to a question. Needless to say, we’re now invested in finding the answer posed by this simple three-word introductory sentence so we read on.
In fiction, we have this lovely example from a very exemplary book:
“When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”–Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
For such a celebrated book, the line is simple and uncomplicated. There’s no mystery behind it. But it invites the reader to ask questions. Why did Jem break his elbow? And why is his sibling the narrator writing about this event in such a matter-of-fact manner?
Say something bold and daring
“You should read this book if you feel you don’t belong in the normal world, which coincidentally applies to almost everybody, but we’ll circle back on that later.”–Paul W. Carter, Sex, Drugs, and Rocking Code
Saying that readers don’t belong in the “normal” world is such a bold claim. But it works so well, especially if we consider that the book is about the rock-and-roll lifestyle of an eccentric programmer.
The author cut right to the chase. Not only are we entranced with his startling opening line but we are compelled to stay on and read to see if he can back up his statement.
Another classic example:
“Happy families are all alike; unhappy families are all unhappy in their own way.”–Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
A bold, sweeping statement- some people might agree with the sentiment of it, and some might not. But it sets the context for the rest of the novel: there is domestic strife happening afoot and everyone is unhappy about it.
What is it that everyone is so unhappy about then? Who knows, maybe it’s a cheating spouse, maybe it’s something else. But regardless of the reason, we are likely to become curious about how it plays out in the story.
Set the scene and the mood.
“Like a dervish in a dance, death descended out of the darkness of the desert and raiders whirled on their camels and horses, striking the encampment.”
And just like that, readers are transported immediately into this dangerous desert, located somewhere in the Middle East. The scene is tense and hectic; it’s not just the mere presence of danger that’s keeping our eyes glued to the page, but also the extremely high stakes that are at play here. People’s lives are at risk- someone is going to get killed soon.
“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”–Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
This introductory sentence characterizes the confusion and anxiety that this narrator, presumably a young person judging by the tone, was feeling. Not only did it characterize the narrator, but it also successfully captured the whole Cold War paranoia that affected New York, and by extension the rest of the USA, during the 1950s. (Note: We know that this is set during the 50s because the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg- which is the event that is being referenced here- happened in 1953).
It’s a great opening line because it introduces the protagonist, the author’s tone, and the setting all at the same time. Three birds with one stone.
Introduce the protagonist’s or the author’s voice.
Sometimes, introductory sentences don’t need to expound on the plot, introduce the setting, characterize a protagonist, or do whatever it is that we commonly expect first lines to do.
There are a lot of introductory sentences out there that serve only as an introduction to the voice that will accompany the reader throughout the book.
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.”–Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
The first line of Lolita is forcefully romantic. Upon reading that sentence we know that we’re going to be in the shoes of a very passionate man. Only later on do we realize the horror in these words since it is revealed that this passion is directed towards a very underage girl.
“What’s it going to be then, eh?”–Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange
Just plain dialogue. No narration, explanation, description, or literary embellishment of any kind. But from those few words alone we know that this narrator is angry, defiant, and rebellious. It’s a good setup for the mindless violence and evil acts that Alex– the protagonist and narrator– commits throughout the first half of the novel.
Shock your readers in a good way.
A lot of writers think that they have to shock their readers to get their attention.
It’s a risky approach to take for your book’s introductory sentence. Writing a sentence just for its shock value and not connecting it to the whole narrative thread can be a huge turnoff. Like you’re just shocking readers for the sake of shocking them.
But done correctly, the initial shock from your opening line can transform confusion and astonishment into curiosity and amazement. A tease for readers, if you will, coercing them to continue reading if they dare.
“It was the day my grandmother exploded.”–Iain Banks, The Crow Road
What do you mean that your grandmother exploded? How in the world did that happen?
A crazy event makes for a crazy opening line. The fact that it was narrated in such a no-nonsense tone just adds to the hilarity of the line.
Secure an emotional connection with your reader.
“You are a leader.”–Alinka Rutkowska, Supreme Leadership
Humans are wired to make connections with one another. By addressing the reader directly, the author taps into our primordial need for attachment. We like that we are getting noticed and praised. In turn, this elicits an emotional reaction from us; we start to get invested into what the author is saying almost immediately.
Because emotions evoke reactions. As long as the sentence gets an emotional response from a reader, whether it be positive or negative, then it has done its job well.
Introductory sentences examples of what to avoid
Writing introductory statements or opening lines is a skill in itself.
Author’s tone, voice, characterization, plot- all of these things an introductory sentence must carry on its shoulders.
“Good enough,” just won’t cut it.
When you’re a new author releasing your first book and looking to make your mark within your niche, then having a bad opening line is just something that you couldn’t afford to do.
Here’s what to avoid when writing introductory sentences:
Writing about uninteresting things, like the weather.
“It was a sad, rainy day in June when all of this happened.”
The line above has nothing going for it. There’s a good reason why the phrase “It was a dark and stormy night…” has been dubbed by the magazine Writers Digest as the “literary posterchild for bad story starters”
If there’s nothing notable happening in the sentence, then don’t write it.
Your readers have an attention span shorter than that of a goldfish.
No, that’s not an insult. According to a 2015 study by Microsoft, people’s focus and concentration start to waver after eight seconds. A probable side effect of the mobile revolution and its endless barrage of notifications, five-second videos, and ultra-short-form content.
So, don’t write a hook or opening sentence that takes a minute to read.
There are lots of creative reasons why you would want your introductory sentence to be longer. But, as a general rule, keep your opening line to around 10 to 15 words.
Using unnecessary words that don’t have much weight
Let’s use this opening line from the horribly infamous piece of Harry Potter fanfiction titled “My Immortal”:
“Hi my name is Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way and I have long ebony black hair (that’s how I got my name) with purple streaks and red tips that reaches my mid-back and icy blue eyes like limpid tears and a lot of people tell me I look like Amy Lee.”
That’s… a lot.
But all of this can be shortened into:
“My name is Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way and I’m not your average goth girl.”
Still doesn’t have that much punch into it and is still far too long. But considering the material it came from, it’s readable at the very least.
Using 10-dollar words
Ten-dollar words are fancy complex words and phrases that most amateur writers like to use because they think these make them look smart.
|$10 word or phrase||Simpler alternative|
|At this point in time||Now|
Don’t make your reader reach for the dictionary, especially in a place as essential as your introductory sentence.
Introductory sentences examples and hook statements – some final words
Authors are pretty similar to salespeople.
In sales, there’s a concept called the “hook” (aka “sales pitch”) that practically all self-respecting marketers are familiar with.
A hook is anything- a tagline, a conversation starter, a quote- that aims to grab and hold your target market’s attention.
Of course, it does. The same thing exists in writing too! In fact, we’ve already been talking about it in the past few hundred words.
For most written work, the hook can be found in the introductory sentence. In fact, there’s probably no better place for them than in your text’s opening line.
Whatever you’re working on– whether it be an English paper, a piece of marketing copy, or your first novel– the hook can be one of the most powerful literary tools in your arsenal.
And while there are many different methods and schools of thought on how to construct that perfect opening hook, there are still some basic principles that they should generally adhere to.
- Keep the sentence short and uncomplicated.
- Keep adjectives to a minimum. Use the correct verbs.
- Clarity over verbosity.
- You don’t always have to shock the reader. Sometimes, a more understated and nuanced approach is better than a loud one.
Though we might have listed each opening line writing method individually in this article, there’s no stopping you from combining two or more of them in one introductory sentence.
Whatever method you choose, all you need to ensure is that it leads to one thing- to make the reader read the next line.