Sunday, December 15, 2013

Notes For Writers - How Important Is The First Sentence?

In the fiction workshop I taught a few weeks ago, we spent a lot of time working on first sentences. Why? Because the first sentence of a novel is critical. Unless your novel starts with a great first sentence - one that puts your character in serious trouble - readers will pass it by for one that does.
If ever a new author could take time to set the stage for her story, that time is gone. With the threshold for publishing a book lowered to zero (anyone can now publish a book), the world is awash in books. How will your story stand out and get attention, especially now that attention spans have shrunk to about the time it takes to read one sentence?
The only way is with a story beginning that grabs the reader's attention in a big way. You don't want a sentence that merely beckons a reader into your story. You want a sentence that jerks them into your story. As Samuel Goldwyn of Metro Goldwyn Mayer said, “I want a story that starts out with an earthquake... and then builds to a climax!”
Oh, but I've read hundreds of books with leisurely beginnings,” you say. Of course you have. Me, too. And nearly all of them were by established authors with a reputation for telling a good yarn. Most were books by authors you've already read. At the minimum, they were books that were recommended by someone whose judgment you trust. You didn't need a gripping first sentence because you came to the book believing it would be good.
New authors don't have that luxury.
When was the last time you paid good money for a book you've never heard of by an author you've never heard of?
Same with me.
The only exception would be a book that had an amazing professional cover, amazing professional back copy (otherwise you would never open the book), and a first sentence you couldn't ignore, a first sentence that grabbed you and made you read the next sentence, and the next, and the next.
What this means is that the first sentence of your first novel is probably the most important sentence you'll ever write.
I recently printed out the first sentences of the Top 10 Kindle bestsellers. (Most fiction is now sold in ebook format, and Kindle has a strong majority share of ebooks, therefore the Top Kindle bestsellers are a great - probably the best - representation of what works at getting readers' attention.)
Most of the Top 10 were by brand name authors who have established readerships and who could afford to take some time getting into their story. Nevertheless, six out of ten had first sentences that put a character in life-or-death trouble. The first sentence! Life-or-death!
Does your first sentence do that? If not, how are you going to get traction in the marketplace? To put it in starker relief, consider this: There is now an unlimited supply of free Kindle books available. Some estimates range from 10,000 to 20,000 every day. With thousands of times more free books than a person could ever read, why would a reader pay good money to buy your book?
But if your first sentence yanks them into the story, maybe you'll have a chance.
As you read this, many of you are probably wondering if the first sentence of my first book was that great. I won't claim greatness for anything I've written. But it did put a character in life-or-death trouble. And I believe it had a huge impact on my career. Not only did people read Tahoe Deathfall (it still regularly cracks the Top 100 Private Investigator's bestseller list on Amazon), but the book got great reviews and mentions. Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, and newspapers across the country.
What was the first sentence of my first novel?

The fall from the cliff was so sudden it was as if God had yanked Melissa off her feet and hurled her into the air.

I put life-or-death trouble into the first sentence of each of my first four novels. By my fifth novel I was able to take a little more time because I had a readership that believed they could count on me to tell a good story even if the first sentence didn't begin with Sam Goldwyn's earthquake.
Now, after reading the first sentences of the Top 10 Kindle books and discovering that established authors are beginning with life-or-death trouble, I'm going to go back to the practice. The competition for a reader's attention is simply too great.
At every event I do, one or three people give me a copy of their book, wanting me to read it. Many of those books are probably really good stories. But I've yet to open one to find life-or-death trouble in the first sentence.
Life is short. Readers have endless books to choose from. They will continue to pick novels that grab them from the first sentence.
If you've written a gripping story, somewhere in there is life-of-death trouble.
Move it up to the first sentence.

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