Ever given a book the ‘first sentence test’? No? It’s simple. Open a book and read the first sentence but not another word. Was it interesting? Did it make you want to read more? Did it sound cliché? However important you think your first sentence is, it’s even more important than that. It sets the tone. The pacing. It’s the passport that takes a reader into a landscape you’ve toiled to create for months and years.
Let’s cover some tips starting with the phrase, ‘the urge…’ in each sample.
Tip 1—Rewrite Passive Constructions
‘The urge had always been there.’
Does this sound like a weak first sentence? It should. Out of six words, two are passives verbs. Passives verbs like ‘has’, ‘had’, ‘was’, ‘were’, ‘is’, and ‘are’ make the weakest sentences in fiction. The reader’s imagination isn’t brought into the world. It’s not given any work. The only real virtue of this sentence is the fact that it establishes motive and possible conflict, however vague.
Let’s try this instead:
‘The urge to give up weighed on Emelia with 50,000 lbs. of whale-sinking, oil tanker-capsizing misery.’
The hyperbole in this sentence might be too high, but it’s more interesting to read. It’s closer to where we want to be—writing a sentence that has never been written before. Rewriting passive constructions is one step to a killer first sentence.
Tip 2—Include your Protagonist, your Setting, or an Initial Plot Point
‘The urge a dog feels for a bone in its teeth is what Willard felt for the driver’s seat of his truck—it was the right kind of rough.’
Your first sentence belongs in only one book—your book. It shouldn’t read the same as someone else’s. If the story you’re about to tell doesn’t show up in the first sentence, consider rewriting the sentence.
What does this sample sentence tell us about the story? Willard values comfort. No doubt something in the near future will threaten this. We’ve got a character, a mention of motivation, and elements of a setting—all in the first sentence.
What else does our sample sentence communicate? Note the mention of a dog followed by the word ‘rough’ to subtly evoke a barking noise. This shows a reader that similar subtlety may be hidden in the pages ahead for an attentive book lover to find. Many readers enjoy finding such hidden nuggets which turn a good read into a great one.
Tip 3—It’s over 50 Words Long? Shrink it!
‘The urge hung over him like a mad haze, but it was his—his urge and not his father’s or his mother’s misguided attempts to bring themselves happiness in a failed marriage that they clung to by their fingernails without caring an ounce about anyone else—no—it was his alone, and Samantha would see that soon enough.’
Did you lose interest in this story after only 58 words? There’s conflict and character, but is it a good place to start? A long, complex sentence might be great for world building and set up, but it’s weak as a first sentence. Long first sentences threaten to loose reader interest before they’ve had any time to connect with your story.
But what about a rambling sentence to set up a long-winded, self-indulgent protagonist? Sounds like it should work, right? No! This is your first sentence! Your protagonist has the rest of the book to ramble. Save the rambling for later. You can communicate the same characterization without using a lengthy first sentence.
Tip 4—Remove Excess Adjectives and Adverbs
‘The urge to angrily smash anything directly in front of him quickly swelled and immediately threatened to cause dire harm to Julia’s long, thin, and grey-black kitchen table.’
This is an exaggeration, of course, but knowing how to clean up any sentence with too many adjectives and adverbs is a tool every writer needs to employ, particularly with first sentences. Let’s clean the sentence up. Does it matter that the table belongs to Julia? Does the size and shape matter? What’s important to the story?
Here’s a cleaner version:
‘The urge to smash the table where his fist sat caught him by surprise.’
This version emphasizes what’s important—the degree of anger. The location of the character is the same, but it receives minor mention. Most likely, this will not be the last time this character threatens violence to his own surprise.
Tip 5—Don’t Over Stuff it
‘The urge to be promoted out of the humble ranks of the Hildegrade Extra-planetary Recon Space Rangers into the illustrious Silverteti Command Squadron had ached in Graccus Gralus’ soul for over a decade, but during this light-cycle, all that would change in a snap flash shorter than the Raxallas War.’
This first sentence is trying to do too much. A symptom of that is the passive verbs that are being used to connect elongated noun phrases. It’s bloated. On the bright side, we have a protagonist, setting, and motivation. Over stuffing a first sentence often comes from a desire to share the world as fast as possible. Invented worlds are something writers and readers delight in, however, shorter first sentences are almost always a stronger way to launch a narrative.
Let’s try again:
‘The urge to see himself promoted to Commander waged a war in Gralus as dark as the unending wars that littered the stars with their wreckage.’
There’s enough detail here to communicate a similar universe, character, and motivation, but it’s briefer and points to something deeper than the previous attempt—a theme. How would humans respond to the emptiness of space if all the emptiness of their wars and weapons went with them? Perhaps Gralus will grapple with answering this question. Can a single sentence hold that much content? It can. Good writers aim for it, and readers enjoy it.
Tip 6—Spice it up with a Simile or Metaphor
Let’s say we’re writing a paranormal romance—plenty of urges to go around—so a first sentence is easy, right?
‘The urge was powerful in Lanzasha but took getting used to.’
Feels bland, doesn’t it? We’ve got a character’s name but little else worthwhile. Similes and metaphors grow a statement into new imaginative territory. The best similes and metaphors draw the reader into the story by comparing two similar things in a meaningful way.
Let’s try again:
‘The urge to locate the aroma pulled Lanzasha through the raucous crowd like a rip current, drifting ever in the wrong direction.’
The comparison of a crowd and the sea is apt and common, however, here the comparison extends to create tension. How can a smell lead someone the wrong way—especially, a smell in a crowded place? The reader will have to continue the story to learn.
Tip 7—Perplex them with a Paradox
‘The urge brought apathy to Amy, and she loved it.’
This sentence is puzzling. How do an urge and apathy share the same space, much less causing love? The reader learns that Amy is a conflicted woman, and, perhaps, all the more real and relatable for it.
The strength of a paradox comes from more than just oddity. Paradoxes have the ability to dig deeper into the fabric of reality. Life can’t always be boiled down to pithy statements or neat formulas. When you start with a paradox, you show your readers that your first sentence isn’t an afterthought but a deliberate question about human experience—a theme to spend the rest of the story exploring.
Tip 8—Don’t Clickbait—No Gimmicks
‘The urge to pull the trigger relented when Cheryl squeezed.’
Here the reader learns that Cheryl is shooting someone or something. That’s exciting, right? It starts the story with a bang. Perhaps. But does the reader have a reason to care about the shooter or what’s being shot? No. There’s no dramatic tension. There can’t be weight to actions done by a character who’s person and world we haven’t met yet. Only cheap violence.
When a story starts in a place like this it leaves little room to move, and when it does, the move is jarring as the narration jolts backwards to recount the present conflict. All for the sake of a gimmicky first sentence. Trust yourself and your reader. They’ll give you a chance if you prove you’ve got a story to tell.
Let’s try this instead:
‘The urge to pull the trigger passed, but the rage inside Cheryl kept her hands shaking for hours.’
This is similar, but it gives the story a chance to explore how Cheryl came to such a crisis without wrenching the narrative. Will she return to a similar crisis later on? What caused such immense anger and will it define her? The reader will have to continue the story to find out.
9—Make it Good to the Ear
Every word matters. When we’re considering each word as closely as possible, we have to consider poetic techniques. No branch of writing cares more about the sheer arrangement of words and their sound than poetry.
Here’s simple alliteration of the ‘r’ sound:
‘The urge for more anger roiled in Veronica.’
We’ve got a character and a motive here, but it’s packed into a sentence that emphasizes the English ‘r’ sound. English speakers often consider ‘grrrr’ to be the sound of anger or frustration, and there’s about as much here as a sentence can fit.
Here’s a tongue twister:
‘The urge merged on the verge of a surge—Sarge was sure.’
This sentence self-consciously makes sound the priority. There’s the mention of a character, but it’s clear that the sound is what the writer is attempting. Mixing the sounds of words and their content is one way to hit readers in a fresh and memorable way.
It may seem silly to go to such lengths for a first sentence, but readers will notice. It indicates to them that you’ve put time and effort into the story and what lies ahead for them is deliberate and intentional.
Aim to make your first sentence memorable— not just a placeholder. As shown here, even a simple phrase like, ‘the urge…’ can launch a thousand different stories for potentially a million different readers. A good opening sentence protects your hard work from being tossed aside. It’s worth the effort.