THE FIRST SENTENCE OF A BOOK IS A HANDSHAKE, PERHAPS AN EMBRACE. STYLE AND PERSONALITY ARE IRRELEVANT. THEY CAN BE FORMAL OR CASUAL. THEY CAN BE TALL OR SHORT OR FAT OR THIN. THEY CAN OBEY THE RULES OR BREAK THEM. BUT THEY NEED TO CONTAIN A CHARGE. A LIVE CURRENT, WHICH SHOCKS AND ILLUMINATES.
— Jhumpa Lahiri
The first sentence of a book is formally called a ‘hook’. You’re taught in school that it is what sets the mood for the entire novel and it is what draws the reader in to read it. It’s supposed to intrigue and excite the audience, just as a trailer for a feature film is supposed to. A writer has to pack all of that mystery and emotion into one single sentence.
How do you do that?
First of all don’t limit yourself. This first sentence may be important, but it doesn’t have to be perfect the very first time you start writing. I didn’t understand that part really, and it took me seven years to get past the first scene of a novel. Don’t be stupid; don’t be a perfectionist. This is what drafts are for. It will come in time and taking someone’s suggestion about it might be helpful. At least don’t immediately nix the idea.
Lahiri is correct in his earlier quote: your hook can be formal or casual. In this nature it helps to form whatever atmosphere you wish for the world, the character involved or the situation they are involved in. The first sentence is an introduction to the entire tale, so it could be as simple as “He was dead.” Or it could spin a wild story all on its own. Either way, you write it how you want the book to be perceived. A formal tone will give the appearance of a non-fiction book (even in a fictional setting, if your character is formal with the audience it will give the story some authenticity. Informality will make the audience feel more at ease, but doesn’t necessarily take away from the authenticity of the story.
Don’t be afraid to make the first sentence dialog, as long as it still packs a punch. Usually this comes in the form of jumping in during the middle of a conversation. Having it be the response to a question, or even the question itself would be eye-catching. Starting from there you can draw the audience into your plot easily. If you want to go with an action scene, don’t start the story right before everything gets chaotic—the readers aren’t going to want the dull details on something they have no reason to care about yet. Jump them right into the action—alarms blaring, a car chase, something that gets their adrenaline pumping (mostly) because they have no idea what is going on, so they stick around to read more.
What I’m trying to tell you, my dear writers, is that you can’t be afraid to think outside of the box in order to draw in your audience. The hook of the story is important and shouldn’t be ignored until you are on your final draft—it should be crafted especially for your story with emphasis on introducing the would-be readers to your world, plot and characters.