How Important is the First Sentence of a Novel?

Quite a while ago (at least a year), I wrote a blog post on why Show Don’t Tell Is a Lie. It remains today one of my top ten most read posts. But recently, I’ve started to wonder how many do’s and don’t’s I learned in college that I now actually disagree with.

And one of the emphasis I heard from many of my English teachers was the importance of the first sentence. Whether you are writing a novel, short story, or argumentative essay, the first sentence serves one main purpose: the pull the reader in. But what does that mean and does a fixation on the first sentence possibly harm the rest of the work?

For the purpose of this post, I will be focusing more on the usage of the first sentence of novels, as opposed to shorter works like short stories and essays. Though, I have always had the firm belief that all the same rules apply for both, just in a more condensed version. For example, short stories should have an inciting incident, rising action, climax, and resolution, just as a novel does (though not all short stories follow this theory of mine). Essays are another cup of tea, however, as they are meant to explain a topic or argue a point.

Infamous First Lines

What are some of your favorite first lines of novels? Here’s a few famous ones.


It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

George Orwell, 1984


It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.

William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury

I could keep going on forever, but these three demonstrate my point aptly.

Now, what do these have in common? Well, they certainly all tell different information. Orwell’s presents us a strange world, telling us this is not our own, as clocks do not strike thirteen on our modern earth. In Austen’s she is stating a philosophical fact which may or may not be disproven in the following story. Faulkner’s makes us ask the simple question, “What is hitting?”

All of them do very different things, but what they all do is make us ask a question.

This is the point of a first sentence, I have been told many times. To make the reader want to read onward to answer that question. To understand why such a statement is made or what happens next.

But It’s Just One Sentence?

Here’s my problem with fixating on the first sentence. The average novel is made up of between 60,000 to 120,000 words. The average sentence contains 15-20 words. If you do that math, that’s between 3,000 to 8,000 sentences per book.

So my question is: how important can one sentence out of 8,000 be?

Why do so many writing teachers drill into our heads that we must create that perfect first sentence when we then have to worry about 7,999 more sentences before we finish our novel.

Of course the first sentence can be memorable and impactful, but just like the importance of show, don’t tell, it’s not everything.

I knew many writers in college who were working on novels, but who never got past the first chapter because they were constantly worrying about capturing that first impression a reader has to a book.

In fact, I try to never worry about my first line until I’m on the third or fourth full draft. Why? Because the beginning is just part of the story.

I have read a lot…probably too much and I don’t mean to stop any time soon. In my years of reading, you don’t know how many times I have started a truly interesting book to find that that first sentence is the highlight of the story and everything goes downhill from there.

Everything

Instead of focusing only on the first sentence, a writer should focus more on the rest of the story. I always say, work from big too small (every writer is different, of course, and some writers might work well in a different way). Understand your big story before you worry about the first sentence.

Remember that, at the end of the day, a reader rarely remembers a first sentence, but they will always remember a great story.

As so many of my readers are avid novel readers, I’m curious what your thoughts are on this topic. I know that publishers and teachers put such emphasis on the first sentence, but for me the first sentence isn’t near the most important part of any novel, but I’d like to hear what you think. Let me know your viewpoint down in the comments, follow my blog for more musings and, as always,

Best wishes in your life full of adventure,

Madame Writer

17 thoughts on “How Important is the First Sentence of a Novel?

  1. While the first sentences make a great impression for many readers, I agree with this…

    “Remember that, at the end of the day, a reader rarely remembers a first sentence, but they will always remember a great story.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think you make a good Point in this post; you Mention that you only worry About first sentences in a later draft. That makes a lot more sense to me than starting with a “meaningful first sentence”, when you don’t even really know the meaning of the rest of the book yet.
    Obviously such first lines as the P&P one are Wonderful, and I love them. But that just seems to be a part of Jane Asuten’s writing style; I also love the beginning Paragraph of Northanger Abby (where she talks About how Catherine is not at all a typical Heroine).
    But a lot of my favourite books have quite forgetful first sentences, and I don’t mind that hasn’t taken away from my enjoyment, either.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m with you, Madame Writer! I don’t concentrate on making the first sentence (and paragraph) pop until my first draft is done. If I did, I probably wouldn’t get anything finished. Love the first liners you came up with for us. ❤ Happy Writing, Editing & Rewriting!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. When it comes to writing both fiction and nonfiction, I do not concern much with writing a hard-hitting first sentence. I take a more….holistic approach to writing? In fiction, I think an opening chapter more broadly speaking should grab the reader rather than an opening sentence. If a reader has gotten through the first chapter and wants to know more about the story, world, characters, etc., then I did my job. I don’t really worry so much about how attention-grabbing a sentence can be as a paragraph or a whole chapter can be.

    Personally, I think the rule should be first chapters are the most important, because they are, as a commenter pointed out previously, advertising your book. If you make a good enough first impression in the first chapter, and your reader wants to continue, then it’s not as important just how strongly your book opens. Of course, that doesn’t mean I won’t make changes to an opening paragraph or even change an opening sentence, but I don’t think it’s something to harp on as much as professional authors and writers say it is.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with you. A first chapter is much more important than a first sentence, though I think equal focus should be put on each chapter. Every part of a book is important, which includes the beginning because, as you said, it’s supposed to give the reader a strong impression of the world and characters.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. You make a very good point. I agree with you, sort of, to some extent maybe 🙂 I agree with you that the first sentence is not everything, of course. Most writers want their first sentence to “pull the reader in”, but I don’t think it always has that goal. If anything, the first paragraph should pull you in, not the first sentence. No one will stop reading a book because the first sentence is boring, but they may stop if the first, second and third paragraphs are.

    I rather like when the first sentence of the book captures the book’s “essence”. It is a clever device to tell virtually everything about the book without having read it. Albert Camus’s first sentence of “The Outsider” reads: “My mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know”. That is the essence of the book. The narrator does not even know when his mother died. Shall we judge him for it? What impression does that give? It was his mother, and he does not even know when she died. The whole premise of the book is in that one sentence. Admirable, outstanding, at least in my opinion.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I completely agree with you! The first sentence can be brilliant in giving a hint of the book (whether it be the setting, or the tone, or the protagonist). I love a good first sentence too, but, like you mentioned, the first few paragraphs are more important than the first sentence.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. It’s like advertising to me. If you’re selling garbage, I don’t care how good your ad is!

    Also, I’d totally like more love lavished on the endings of stories. A good ending gets me every time. Maybe it’s still as Bukowski said, that few know when to end properly. ‘Course, he was an asshole – pardon my language – and the poem he wrote on the topic didn’t end well… 😀

    Liked by 1 person

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