Completing a novel necessarily means you’ll be writing many, many sentences. But there are people who rightfully point out that the first sentence is arguably the single most important sentence of all your novel writing efforts. No pressure, right? And then there’s the last sentence as well, which many believe ranks close behind your first sentence in terms of its importance. Is it really worth obsessing over a first sentence, or a last sentence for that matter? Let’s find out!
The First Sentence Makes a First Impression on Readers
Everyone knows first impressions are critical. And you only get ONE chance to make a first impression. This puts a lot of pressure on the first line of your novel. After all, it has to be good enough to make a reader want to keep going. To be fair, though, most people will at least read the first page before forming their final first impression. But if you can create a truly compelling first sentence, your readers will be eager for more. Something that can help inspire you is taking a look at some famous novels, each of has an amazing first sentence, and figure out what makes each of those first sentences so good.
The Strong Voice/Character First Line
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
~ J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951) ~
What makes this first sentence so amazing is how it immediately establishes a very strong character and voice for the young man telling the story. He’s got a lot of attitude, and Salinger wrote the narrator from a raw, first-person point of view (POV) as if the kid was telling this story to someone in real life and somehow it was captured or recorded. It’s highly conversational in a good way. It isn’t bound by many of the writing rules drummed into people’s heads back in school, which makes it all the more realistic in terms of how this character would tell the story.
The Surprising, Intriguing, Mysterious First Line
Marley was dead: to begin with.
~ Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843) ~
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
~ George Orwell, 1984 (1949) ~
As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found
himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect.
~ Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis (1915) ~
It was the day my grandmother exploded.
~ Lain Banks, The Crow Road (1992) ~
Each first sentence above gives you some kind of jolt that definitely makes you want to read on. A dead person as a character? Clocks striking 13? Being changed into an insect? Exploding grandmothers? Who wouldn’t want to find out what’s going after first lines like those?
A Grand Statement, Universal Truth, or Keen Observation as a First Line
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 (1813) ~
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
~ Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877) ~
Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.
~ Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) ~
The actual veracity of the statement isn’t the point. Everyone knows Jane Austen was being very witty and satirical in her novels about Victorian norms, morals, and romances. But the point of this kind of first sentence is how it will make readers pause a moment to reflect on the offered statement, and then they will want to read more to find out how it applies to the story.
Scene and/or Mood Setting as a First Line
It was a dark and stormy night…
~ Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830) ~
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
~ William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984) ~
It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.
~ Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963) ~
When the setting is especially important, your first sentence might be about it, even if that important setting doesn’t remain vital throughout the entire story. As you can see from the examples above, a good scene-setting first sentence tends to have a bit of mystery or intrigue to go along with it.
The Main Theme or Whole Story Encapsulated in a First Sentence
Someone must have slandered Joseph K., for one morning, without
having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.
~ Franz Kafka, The Trial (1925) ~
Nearly all of the first lines listed throughout this article do connect deeply in some way to the overall theme or “big problem” of the novels they start. It’s always a good idea to make sure your first sentence offers a glimpse into what your story is about.
The Final Word on Your First Sentence
The various examples above show how a great first sentence can make for a great novel. So yes, it is worth taking time to carefully craft your first sentence – within reason. The “within reason” addition here is important. Chasing the perfect first sentence can become counterproductive. It could hold up the rest of your writing if you can’t get past it. In this case, it’s more important to move on and get the writing well underway – you can always come back to that first sentence when it comes to you. It’s also not worth tying yourself up in knots over it as you’re likely to produce a first sentence that tries too hard, and shows it. If it comes out feeling forced or overly contrived, then it’s not going to serve the purpose.
And What About the Last Sentence of Your Novel?
Lots of examples of great last sentences have been listed elsewhere, so feel free to look them up using your favorite search engine. The problem with looking at them is it’s impossible to say why any given last sentence is good unless you’ve actually read the whole novel it ends. That’s the big difference between a first sentence and a last sentence – the first sentence is by design crafted to appeal to readers taking it in for the very first time to lead them into the story. The last sentence is what wraps it all up and concludes it in some kind of meaningful way. It’s a lot harder to do than you might think, but it’s arguably almost as vital as the first sentence.
Both the first sentence and last sentence of your novel are incredibly important. Your first line is your first impression, and it has only one chance to do a big job – pique the reader’s interest enough to want to keep reading. The last sentence is the final impression you can make on your reader – will it be satisfying enough to make them want to read your next novel? And in case you’re wondering, the novel pictured at the top of this article is The Call of the Wild by Jack London (1903).