The first sentence in your best-selling novel tells the entire story. It’s a hook into what’s revealed in the first paragraph. That first paragraph hooks into the first chapter. Did you notice I’m using the word “hook” a lot. Hooks are what make your novel a best-seller. There’s another hook at the end of the first chapter and every chapter after. What are hooks?
Hooks are what make a novel into a page turner. They are questions your novel puts into the minds of your readers. The main question is called the “engine” of the story. Additional questions in your story add power to the “engine” in the same way mechanics add power to a car engine with superchargers, specialized air filters, cold air intake kits, performance chips, and weight reduction. The last one may seem to fail the analogy, but your novel will be much improved if you eliminate anything that does not advance the story. How can one sentence tell the story of an entire novel?
The first sentence reveals the novel through the mood it forces on the reader. How about a few examples from published novels.
Sample First Sentences From Great Novels
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – 1984, George Orwell. The novel tells a story about a world off-kilter from the real one where the narrator thinks as they want him to think.
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” – Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov. A novel about love and lust.
“Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.” – The Stranger, Albert Camus. The novel tells the story of a man whose lack of interest in others works against him at a murder trial.
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy. A novel about an unhappy family.
“Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.” The Trial, Franz Kafka. An existential novel about a man arrested and tried for an unknown crime.
Must the First Sentence Be the Story Engine?
A good story can start with a question or problem that the reader will want resolved. A good first question will tie in to the story engine even if it is not the main question. An example, you say?
Let’s take a story about a couple starting a new restaurant near a sports arena that will guarantee good sales. The only other restaurant in the area has several owners backing it including some shady characters connected with organized crime. The couple faces both legal and illegal opposition from the well funded shady characters. How will we set the hook?
The story of the steadily increasing pressure from the crooks needs to start slow. Not a good hook. The crooks employ people of many talents including enforcers. A good hook would be to start with a story about one of those enforcers on a job making a kill or putting someone into intensive care.
Now the reader has questions. Who is this enforcer? Why did she do that? Who sent her? They will feel that the enforcer is going to appear again later and must get hers by the end of the story. As the novel moves on to the happy couple with the new restaurant, their problems will need to start appearing right away. The story engine is revving up.
Keep the Engine Running
Your novel must keep on feeding the engine of your story through to the end. It should always be working on either the main problem or one of the supporting problems. As the end nears, the problems keep multiplying until the final resolution that clears up the main question for good.
By the time the main question has been answered, all of the minor questions should also be answered. Sometimes resolving the main question takes care of many of the minor ones. Any questions left unanswered will leave your readers feeling something was missing. Sometimes they will know exactly what was missing, if it was a question they especially cared about.
Now you know why I want to read your story. With good hooks and a well maintained story engine, I’ll keep reading until the last word.
Article by Ivan Izo.