The First Sentence

The first sentence is often the most difficult when writing.  Everyone tells you that it is the most important, that it is the hook that will grab your reader and make them not want to put your book down.

That is true.  It is important. 

It can also stop you from writing. 

It can freeze you in place before you ever get started.

I have a friend who has obsessed about the first line of a certain book for years.  Literally years.  He has the entire story in his head.  He has written out more details about his characters than anyone would ever want to know. He has story arcs within story arcs, plots and sub plots and well thought out twists and turns.  Each section, each part, each character has a thick file.  Yet even though has written several other things (and written them well) he has never actually started that particular story. 

Well, technically he has started it about a million times, but each time he stops, edits the sentence and decides it isn’t perfect enough to start this, the most glorious story he has ever written, or planned to write since he hasn’t actually written it.

I love him dearly and I love the premise of his story but truthfully, I doubt he will ever get it written. He has become so obsessed with the perfect first line that he can’t get the story out.  It is the cork bottling up the rest of the plot.

So much pressure is put on that first line that often times we can’t get past it and just get stuck without writing the story. If you are having trouble getting started here are three very simple ideas that might get you past this initial hurdle.  Which one appeals to you pretty much depends on you.

  1. Tell yourself that it is only a place holder and that it will be erased as soon as you start editing.  If it makes you feel better, then go into your manuscript and preemptively highlight or strike your first sentence through (Use red if you’d like in honor of your high school English teacher).  That way you have a visual cue that those words are not your first sentence.  That glorious first sentence is waiting for you to circle back to it.  The words on the page are merely placeholders so that you can insert the utterly fabulous grab-the-reader-by-the-throat first line later. It sounds silly yes, but you would be amazed at what a simple strike through can do. 
  2. The second option is a variant of the first actually. Start with a two word sentence just to get the ball rolling. Think of it as a throw away line.  Use your character’s name as one of the words and make the second word an action.

James awoke.

James yelled.

James sobbed.

James dreamt.

Figure out that first scene and what your character is doing and the mood and start with that. Even if you go back and later add the most deliciously crafted sentence in history in front of your simple two word sentence (or in place of it) you have officially gotten the ball rolling and can leave any editing for later.

3. This option is useful for when you are not only stuck on what you want your first line to be but what you want to start with as your first scene.  Start writing in the middle of an action. Start with the bomb exploding.  Or with the first shots being fired.  Have the car peel away from the curb or the dragon race towards your band of misfits. Once you start writing that action scene thoughts will creep in.  ‘Maybe I ought to show how this band of travelers came together before the dragon attacked’. ‘Should I talk aboiut why this car is racing away before they peel off?’

Of course the dragon attack may be what brings the random travelers together in the first place and perhaps the car chase is the scene you want to start off your book. That is up to you (and your story). However in writing the scene whether it stays in front, gets bumped to later in the manuscript or even gets cut all together, it gets you started.  You also know that since this probably won’t be your first scene when the manuscript is actually complete (since that’s what you tell yourself when you sit down), then the sentence you start with won’t actually be your first sentence.  It takes off a lot of the pressure of that first sentence and just lets you write.

First sentences are important, but they are something you work on in editing.  If you manage to craft the perfect first sentence at the start and then spill your story out after, then fabulous. I salute you. 

It is rare for me to even use the first sentence I start any manuscript with in the final draft.  I would say that 98% of them I end up erasing.  I generally plonk something down just to start the story and when editing, the first sentence is actually one of the last things I edit.  I look at it when I start the editing process and usually circle it in red and then think about it while editing the rest of the manuscript and then finally circle back to it at the end.

Just remember that in your first draft, you have the absolute right to write the worst, most poorly structured story ever created. You have permission. Your first sentence just kicks you off into the pool of the first draft.  In editing it can be polished and buffed up to be the magical hook that you want it to be. Right now, the trick is to start.

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