Three Ways Your First Sentence Isn’t As Good As You Thought It Was

by | 4 January 2019 | Writing | 14 comments

First sentences are first impressions.

After the title, cover, and blurb, your first sentence is going to be the first thing about your book that will capture the reader and pull them into the story.

I’ve even bought books off first sentence impressions before. No pressure. 😛

 

Your first sentence needs to catch the reader’s eye. It needs to stand out from every other first sentence they’ve ever read. It needs to offer something that will make them keep reading to the second sentence…and the third sentence…and the ninth book in a three-part trilogy.

It’s crucially important to have a good first sentence. And not just a good one, but an absolutely breathtaking one.

 

So it’s time to evaluate these important sentences and put some of the ones on your bookshelves to the test! This blog post could also be titled: ‘How to write a terrible first sentence 101’ 😉

 

1: Gripping and breathtaking…but a lie

Death tolled on the last stroke of midnight.

I waved my hands dramatically, flapped my blanket cape like it was really windy, then leapt off my bed with an evil cackle at my audience of bored siblings.

It’s all very well to have a gripping first sentence, but it needs to lead on to a gripping first scene. You can’t promise your readers something, only to trick them.

If you promise mystery or action or intrigue in your first sentence, you need to pay up. Readers will feel more cheated over a fake first line, than a more mediocre but true first line.

In the first sentence example, I promised an eerie sort of mystical story. I definitely got steampunk or historical fantasy vibes. Then in the second sentence, I threw that out the window and gave you a girl acting in front of her family. Two totally different things. That might be a little extreme example, but I see less dramatic versions of this all the time.

 

2: Poetic and flowery and out of context

My tears are like a sonnet on the midsummer breeze, falling on the blissless ears of silence.

“Why is Mr Picket so darishly handsome?” I ask, twisting in my seat to direct the question to Lindsay.

While your first sentence can be poetic, it’s simply off-putting to have the second sentence have nothing to do with the first sentence, or be in a totally different style. I know this because I have done it. Many times.

It doesn’t work to write the coolest first sentence ever, try make it meaningful and memorable…Then in the next sentence actually start telling the story. It sounds good at first, but ultimately loses the impact it should have.

 

3: Talk about the weather

The sunset casts a golden glow over me, lingering like a half forgotten dream.

This example sentence is cool and intriguing, but it doesn’t actually give the reader a glimpse at what the book will be about, unless it’s a dreamy weather guide.

Weather might set the scene, but it doesn’t give the inner conflict of the story, a character to root for, or even a question to ponder.

 

 

A few of my examples might have been okay on their own, but in the context, they didn’t do their job like they should have. They grabbed the reader, only to drop them on the second sentence.

The first sentence is a promise, the rest of the book is fulfilling that promise.

 

I picked three books from my shelves to showcase their amazing first sentences. They give you questions, they make you interested, they give you a reason to keep reading, and then the books themselves absolutely exceed those promises with an even greater answer.

 

I wasn’t ready to turn to stone.

FAWKES (Nadine Brandes) sets up the story ingeniously. Thomas (the narrator character) is turning to stone, but he’ll do anything to stop it from happening. Perhaps even kill a king?

 

Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood.

Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief (Rick Riordan) gives an instant taste of the style and character of the entire series. That sentence sums up Percy Jackson’s character voice so well, and it is essentially a characteristic moment in just eight words. You know that you’re in for a crazy time.

 

Old Sparky was supposed to have killed Jeremiah Goodbye.

What Blooms From Dust (James Markert) starts off with this insane sentence. I read this book solely because of that line. I mean…Old Sparky? Jeremiah is supposed to be dead? But presumably he’s not, right? So how did that happen? The first sentence just throws it right at you, and the rest of the book is just as odd-but-amazing. I have no regrets in picking this one up.

 

 

There are probably many other ways to have less-than-excellent first sentences, but these were the few that I have used in the past and probably will use again, if I’m completely honest. 😛

I would almost say that fulfilling your promises is one of the most important aspects of storytelling. Subvert, but exceed the expectations, but always fulfill your promises.

 

Tell me a favourite first sentence! What type of bad first sentences are your biggest pet peeves? Let’s chat!

Jane Maree

Jane Maree

Jane Maree is an Adventurer—exploring the endless wonders of God’s beautiful creation. She started writing by accident, but since the very beginning has loved the enchantment of words on paper. If you say anything about pizza, superheroes, books, or any of her many, many fandoms, she’ll come at the double. Aside from crafting worlds using only twenty-six letters, she is a passionate Jesus-lover, freelance editor, self-trained martial artist, songwriter, and musician. In her spare time, she's often off on random adventures in the name of story research. She seeks to inspire her readers to step out and become the heroes of hope this world needs.

14 Comments

  1. Kate Flournoy

    *nods* Good post. I used to try and be really flowery with my first sentences, but got tired of thinking up random poetic things and decided to just go with whatever felt right, and fix it later if I had to. XD
    One of my favorite first sentences in literature is from Fahrenheit 451: ‘It was a pleasure to burn.’
    How is that not awesome on every level?
    I was also experimenting with a villain’s voice in a prologue the other day and came up with this one: ‘Crevan Kaine brushed a speck of smoldering ash off his apple and took another bite.’
    I was pretty happy with it. XD

    Reply
    • Jane Maree

      Thanks!

      Haha, yes, that often turns out to work really well though. Just write whatever you think at first, then maybe change it later. 😛

      YES. Fahrenheit 451 is such a stunning book too. The whole concept is just crazy.

      Ooh I love that sentence! That really makes me want to read more. 😱

      Reply
  2. Angela Watts

    Great post.

    I also think first lines don’t always have to be astounding to have a great book (historical fiction books come to mind), and just like any other writing stuff, the readers are all objective. So what might be a great sentence to one person, might be ‘eh’ to another. xD But your basic points are spot on!

    Reply
    • Jane Maree

      Thank you. 😀

      That is true! The style of prose is often quite different depending on the genre, so the style of first sentence should be different too.

      And you’re totally right that every reader likes different styles; it can be quite the balancing act. 😛

      Reply
  3. C. L. Farrelly

    Nice, when you say first sentences I though of this one…. Well two.

    It was night again. There waystone inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of the parts.

    Which is a first sentence of the prologue. But in my opinion really cool.

    Or the one from scythe! “We must by law keep a record of the innocents we kill.” That one fits the story perfectly.

    So many epic first sentences out there…. And so many that describe the weather….. Like really I’ll care about that later once I get into the story. (Though of course I’ve done that myself too)

    Reply
    • Jane Maree

      Nice one! I think I’ve heard it before, in fact. Is that from Name of the Wind? It definitely does have an intriguing feel to it.

      That fits so well! It basically sets up the whole concept of the story too, just in that one phrase.

      It’s quite interesting how so many stories have the weather described in the first sentence or paragraph. Maybe that shows something of how people notice a scene in real life? Unconsciously maybe, but we probably do notice if it’s sunny or cloudy, because it affects how we feel. 🤔

      Reply
      • C. L. Farrelly

        Yes that is from Name of the Wind.

        Hmm indeed. Weather is good for setting the tone. That and the characters response to it.

        (Mind you if there were a book where you could start off describing the weather or wind it would be name of the wind!)

        Reply
        • Jane Maree

          Whoo! I remembered it! 😛

          That’s so true actually. Name of the Wind could definitely have gotten away with describing the wind in the first sentence. 😅

          Reply
  4. Evelyn

    Now I want to write a book called something like Bernard’s Guide to Dreamy Weather. ;P

    Great post! 😀

    Reply
    • Jane Maree

      Do it! 😂 That would be hilarious.

      Thank you! 😛

      Reply
  5. J.A.Penrose

    Oooooh, great post!

    First sentences are super important. *nodnod* And yes, I agree with Clare; Name of the Wind definitely comes to mind with an epic start.

    I think one of the types of sentences that really murders my brain are just ones that are 100% boring and long, with very little explanation after them.

    “It was with a sinking heart that the newly arrived ambassador from Seressa grasped that the Emperor Rodolfo, famously eccentric, was serious about an experiment in court protocol.”

    Let’s just say that it was with a sinking heart that I kept trying to read the next few pages before flopping onto my bed and picking up another book for the time being.

    But yes. Lots of good advice! *nodnod*

    Reply
    • Jane Maree

      Haha, thank you! (You can take some credit for inspiring the idea.)

      Oh my, that sentence is difficult to read, to say the least. I can’t say that sounds like a book I’d be able to read. 😬

      I’m no first sentence expert myself, but I’m learning. 😉 Thanks again!

      Reply
  6. MiddleEarthMusician

    YES! First sentences are so much fun to pick out in books and write in your own stories. *nods emphatically* I loved Fawkes’ first sentence, The Hobbit’s first sentence, and 100 Cupboards first couple of sentences. <333
    Also, it was a dark and stormy night. Worst first sentence and yet awesome first sentence. XD

    Reply
    • Jane Maree

      Absolutely! All of Nadine Brandes’ books have stunning first lines. I love them all so much.

      I know right?? 😂

      Reply

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