Monday, December 1, 2014

How To Show Your Story In The First Sentence

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

The first time I heard about this idea was back in September, during a church service, of all places, and it's been one of those concepts that I can't stop thinking about. The idea was this:

The story should be in the first sentence.

It's a miracle that I heard anything else during the sermon, because I couldn't get over that idea. I've heard lots of great advice about first sentences during my years of writing - you should start in the point of view of your main character, start when action is already going, and, one of my personal favorites, the first sentence is a promise to your reader.

But I hadn't heard of this before.


Is this something that's absolutely necessary to the success of a book? No. I pulled dozens of books off my shelves, books that I love, and the story was not in the first sentence. So don't think of this as, "I must do this to be successful." Instead, think of this as a tool that you can use to make a promise to your reader that you know you can keep.

The most notable example of the story being in the first sentence is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
That's the story of Pride and Prejudice, isn't it? Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley both have large fortunes and therefor everyone is obsessed with who they will marry.

Another example from Jane Austen can be found in Emma:


Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.
And that's what the story of Emma holds. She's spoiled and she is happy and we're going to watch her grow increasingly distressed and vexed.

But let's see how a few modern authors achieve this:


Every season of my nanny career kicked off with a round of interviews so surreally similar that I'd often wonder if the mothers were slipped a secret manual at the Parents League to guide them through.
The Nanny Diaries by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, a story about a girl who takes yet another nanny job, expecting it to be the same as always, and is sucked into the family drama like never before. 

It's hard being left behind.
The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, a love story in which the man has a condition that causes him to involuntary time travel. As you might guess, his wife gets left behind quite a bit throughout the story.

The Haddan School was built in 1858 on the sloping banks of the Haddan River, a muddy and precarious location that had proven disastrous from the start.
The River King by Alice Hoffman, a story about a murder that takes place at a boarding school.

The name of the song is "This Lullaby." 
This Lullaby by Sarah Dessen, a YA novel about a teenage girl who has been followed around her whole life by a cheesy ballad her father wrote for her after he left the family. 
Again, this is not a, "You must have your story in your first sentence or your book will never be any good," type thing. This is just one technique for writing a strong opening sentence to your story.

Does the first line of any of your books show the story like in the examples above? If you like, try your hand at writing one that does and share it below!


53 comments:

  1. PRIDE & PREJUDICE!!! That's one of my favourite books ever. And the first sentence is just so ridiculously clever. Jane Austen did such a good job. :-)

    The first sentence(s) of my current book is like this:

    "Tori and Isaiah Coko were sister and brother. Very nice ones, if I may say so myself. They were a good team and got along so well that people thought Mr and Mrs Coko bribed them with money."

    The whole book is about the siblings going on adventures - the first paragraph shows their zeal and good-team-spirit, if you know what I mean.

    I don't really know whether this is a good example of showing your story in your first sentence, actually.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I like these sentences! They really capture my attention.

      Delete
    2. I think it at least accurately portrays the focus of your book, which is important!

      Delete
    3. Thanks, Mrs Morril! Your feedback means a lot to all of us!

      I hope your son is doing well.

      Delete
  2. My current WIP is still in the plotting process, but an opening line I'm currently considering is:
    'Marianne had always thought she was completely ordinary.'
    She discovers quite early on that she isn't really ordinary at all.

    ReplyDelete
  3. "Through the busy marketplace of Biscann ran a young man in a scarlet cape." this is the working first line. Not finished by any way of measuring.

    But the story is about the young man in the scarlet cape who runs through Selkin like a grubby hope flame, so it's a start.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's a very intriguing image to start with. Nice work!

      Delete
  4. My first sentence is “I settle back in the chair and prepare to have my mind read." My MC has lots of secrets, and her worst fear is being made to reveal them. Near the end of the book, she essentially has her mind read and is forced to tell everything. So maybe it's not my story in a sentence, but foreshadowing? I'm not sure.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I like this, Alyssa. You've been very intentional, and I think that's half the battle with first lines.

      Delete
  5. My first sentence is: "The breeze whispered of change."

    I really like everyone else's. :) It's is a neat way to begin a story.

    ReplyDelete
  6. "In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit."

    I haven't even looked at the comments above, and that is the first sentence that popped into my mind. From "The Hobbit" by J.R.R. Tolkien. (aka one of my two favorite authors.)

    The first sentence(s?) for my WIP (first draft completed) is:


    I guess I am what you would call an introvert. I'd rather be at home than out socializing with... people. My friends are in books, or; they are books.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I love these lines! I relate to the character already :)

      Delete
    2. Thanks, Alyssa! :) (I'm the Emily who is your critique partner, just so you know ;))

      Delete
    3. I considered that sentence from The Hobbit. While I like it, I don't think it necessarily tells the story in the first sentence like in the other examples. Which is fine, since we're just talking about a technique that CAN be used and not a "you must do this or fail" type thing.

      Delete
  7. Hmmm ... Interesting thought that I'd never considered, but as I glance over the First Lines that I particularly love in my own writing, I've done it several times.

    For instance, in THE ANKULEN, the opening line (Of the prologue at least) is, "I have no imagination." And the book is about how two of her long-lost imaginary friends help her regain the imagination she abandoned as a girl.

    And then in my current WIP, the opening line is: “It is a fact universally acknowledged that a short girl, in the procession of something above her head must be in want of some young man to get it down for her,” Clara stated, as she and her two best friends headed to the pool. “And no matter how far from the case it may be, if it just so happens that her mom has told her to get something that just so happens to be on a shelf above her head, and some guy just so happens to be walking by and sees her, he's going to offer his help."

    (Technically two sentences, but they go together) Yes, I quote P&P, which is significant, since there's quite a bit of pride and prejudice in the MC's romance, and yes, the lead lady is short. Her love interest is tall. Yes, it causes issues for them. (Or at least for her.) Oh, I love those two.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I am absolutely fascinated by the concept of the first book. Is it published? I'd love to read it!

      Delete
    2. Yes, it is! It's supposed to be 99 cents for cyber monday right now ... but Amazon is giving me issues and it bounced back to its normal price yesterday. Hum ... let me go pull some strings.

      Delete
    3. And the strings won't let me pull them ... oh well ... I think it'll probably be free for Christmas though ...

      Delete
    4. I want to get it. Is it a Kindle book?

      Delete
  8. Wow, I would never have thought of this simple, yet valuable, advice on sentences on my own. Thanks, Mrs. Morrill. :)

    My first sentence is: My life had been very normal up to this point.

    The whole story is basically about my MC's life being turned upside down, so I think this first sentence shows the story pretty well. Thanks again!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Me neither! Nor would I have expected to learn it during a sermon :)

      And very nice job, Linea!

      Delete
  9. Awesome! Thanks for this so much...really need it!

    ReplyDelete
  10. The assassin poised silently over the sleeping figure, dagger pointing downward as he tried to fight the accursed fear.

    That's the first line of my WIP, The Assassin's Mercy. The whole story is about how he fights his fear of fire and accepts his role as a Flameweaver and destroys his master, the one who seeded the fear. And the story starts with an assassination, albeit a badly carried out one, and the plot is how he needs to assassinate his master the Emperor. And yes, he weaves flame. Yes, his parents died in a fire and he has a morbid fear of it. Yes it wove itself into the story quite surprisingly and has sprung a very interesting conflict. I love the others, and mine is nowhere close, but I *think* that's as close as I can get so far. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That sounds awesome and extremely interesting, Jonathan! :D I bet it's fun to write as well.

      Delete
    2. Hey, that is a fantastic first line and idea! Sounds like the kind of story that sucks you right in.

      Delete
  11. Ooh, I love this, Steph. Very interesting.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I just love when you find nuggets of writing advice like that!

      Delete
  12. Great post! Very interesting.

    The current first sentence of my NaNo novel is "I don't know who wrote this dream." My MC lives in the dream world where dream people write and act out our dreams, so that sentence, aside from being a pun off the script she's reading off of, shows her general confusion over finding her place in the world, in addition to hinting at the Christian allegory aspect of "Who wrote the dream world?"

    BUT I'm changing the beginning, so the tentative new first line will be "I'm getting used to sleeping on the roof." Less symbolic of the whole story, but I suppose since she's sleeping on the roof of the orphanage because she let the others drive her out of her bed, it could represent her passivity as a character.

    An off-topic question: If one decides to drastically change one's novel, should one finish out the first draft? During NaNo I just went forward as if I'd written it the new way all along, resulting in a sentient ferret character who disappeared because I realized I didn't need him so why bother putting him in anymore, trains that changed to hovercrafts halfway through, and a mysterious stranger that was suddenly my MC's father... But when I had a breakthrough in the shower last night that if I completely rework the school I can eliminate the need for an over-tragic element of a side character's past, I started wondering if maybe I wouldn't be better off just letting it sit until after finals week and starting over...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The mysterious stranger was actually my MC's *foster* father. Left that bit out.

      Delete
    2. Your book sounds intriguing. I'd like to read it.

      Hmm, I've had that happen to me several times before. Sometimes I've chosen to go ahead and rewrite the book, other times I make myself stick the draft out before I begin operation rewrite. It depends on

      1. How drastic the change is. If I can work the change into the draft I'm working on without it being TOO awkward, I'll go ahead and do it. Otherwise, I consider rewriting.
      2. How close I am to finished. If I've passed the 50% point, I usually make myself finish the draft, just to say that I finished it. However, if the book is barely begun, I'll just drop it and start over.

      So, some things to think about and how I face the problem. It's your decision, after all!

      Delete
    3. I had a book that I was writing where I no longer liked my POV character and wanted to change who it was. I was about half way through writing though and was afraid to start over or even finish the rest from a different POV. But when I went to Realm Makers over the summer (a writers conference) I spoke with the owner of a publishing house who told me I should just start over instead of wasting time with something I don't like. I'm glad I did as he said because the story so much better now.

      Delete
  13. "Guy glanced up from his bow tie and came face-to-reflected-face with a pair of black spots circling his eyes."

    Also considering, "Guy looked up and came face-to-reflected-face with a pair of black spots circling his eyes."

    ReplyDelete
  14. Well, the first sentence I have isn't spectacular... But my last one was better...
    "Life is like music."
    It's about a girl who's parents split up and her friend moves away, but even though all these bad things happen to her, she still loves music and continues to pursue it....mostly... :-) Thanks for the post!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I really like your first sentence. It sounds like something I would read. :) Good luck!

      Delete
    2. Thank you! :-)

      Delete
  15. One of the projects I set aside for awhile had an alright first line, I think. :)
    "Ashe tended to leave quietly in the night when the first signs of mortality set in."
    He's immortal - or something, I figured out the rest of the cast expect for him, my lead XD - and craves human contact. He just can't accept sticking around for fear other people will resent him. Over the course of the book he falls in love with a girl like he but he is so used to running he isn't sure what to do with being in love.

    ReplyDelete
  16. I think I only have one story beginning with something like that:

    Love; I wonder what it feels like.

    Great post!

    ReplyDelete
  17. A first sentence: "Everyone thinks homeschooling is weird, my big family is weird, and, most certainly, I’m weird." That's from Different, about a girl who learns a few things about...well, being different. :)

    A first sentence that I think is going to change eventually, but works for this: "You’d probably never think rain would cause so many problems, but all that means is you’ve never been to Zemelietus." (About a few people who change their country, having to do with the rain)

    And: "The music floats through my dreams again." (Chords That Bind, about a girl who can do things with music)

    Lastly, and this one really needs both sentences: "Sarah’s eyes longed to sweep the auditorium and determine the audience’s response to her singing, but she would not allow them. Only one response mattered, and it would not be a favorable one if she did not keep her eyes from wandering." That pretty much sums up the story in that it's a girl, a singer, who seeks approval. :)

    Thanks for the post! I love that you got this idea during a sermon...it's always a mixed feeling when that happens to me. Usually I write it down quickly so I don't forget, then try to pay attention for the rest of the time...aaah! :)

    ReplyDelete
  18. I love this! I think it's such a great way to think about your novel. Perhaps, inadvertently, I tried to do this in my latest manuscript. Perhaps!

    ReplyDelete
  19. "The sun shines on rich and poor alike; but Prince William of Leramay believed an extra measure of heat was bestowed on the castle arena."

    This sums up William's view of the world. Theoretically, he knows that everyone has ups and downs, but he seems to believe that he is just a little bit better (and his life a little bit harder) than everyone else's. The story, of course, is not about sunshine, but in setting the scene for the first scene, I like being able to share a hint of my MCs worldview in a subtle way.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Very interesting. I love how you've developed you character. An a great way to twist a hard cliché (the snobbish prince) into an original MC. Nice first line, too!

      Delete
  20. Thanks for posting the extremely helpful and interesting article!

    The first sentence of my novel is: I looked up from the ground, my clothes torn up.

    My novel is about a teenage girl who views herself as 'weak', but after saving a cute boy's life, she discovers that she is a superhero. I know it sounds sort of cliche, but I'm going to add a bunch of twists and turns in the story. Hopefully, I'll actually finish this novel! Lol...

    ReplyDelete
  21. The first sentence in my WIP first novel is "She couldn't sleep. For the fourth night in a row, she just lay there, tossing, turning, flipping through her phone and then back to tossing and turning."

    My MC makes an interesting career decision that leads her into a life filled with crime, lies and betrayal. She eventually gets killed. I don't know how but I've always hated the fact that in most novels the MC is kind of immortal so mine won't be.

    ReplyDelete
  22. The first sentence in my story called "Names of Power." is, "Not many things are impossible." The story is about a girl named Clairity who can see things clearly, and she is pushed into a world where the impossible is real, and she discovers what things are possible and what things are not.

    ReplyDelete
  23. What do you think about, "The last thing she remembered was the flapping of wings overhead."
    ~ a first time author

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ohh! It makes me think of the Hobbit. The giant Eagle's wings flapping when they swoop in to save them. ahh
      What you wrote sounds cool. It makes me want to read more. Good Job, and God bless!
      *I was looking around on here for some help and found this. I would have commented before if I had found it earlier on.*

      Delete
  24. I have a habit of writing action first sentences, that is, things that happen in the story, but what most intrigues me is when a book starts with a remark by the character (first person), or a universal fact (third person or first person). I have to keep working on that.

    ReplyDelete

Home