4 ways to write the first sentence of a book

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4 ways to write the first sentence of a book
4 ways to write the first sentence of a book

If you are a writer, you have probably dreamed of completing your first book. But once you've decided, how do you start? Fixing your eyes on a blank page or screen can be daunting, but with a little planning and preparation you'll be ready to produce your pages in no time.


Method 1 of 4: Finding Ways to Write Your First Sentence

Write the First Sentence of a Book Step 1
Write the First Sentence of a Book Step 1

Step 1. Begin with an aphoristic observation

Many classic novels open with a universal truth reflected by the narrator. For example, Anna Karenina de León Tolstoi, begins with the phrase: "Happy families are all the same; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

  • Think about what your novel is about. Are you referring to family relationships? Personal struggles? A person's ability to be his or her own downfall?
  • Once you've narrowed down the broader issue (s) at stake in your novel, you can begin to think about that topic in a more poetic way.
  • Try to come up with some kind of universal truth on the subject. If you can't come up with your own, you have the option of citing a famous aphorism.
  • For inspiration or to find a strong aphorism that you can quote, try searching online. You can start with the compilation of the aphorisms of Hippocrates, which you can get here:
Write the First Sentence of a Book Step 2
Write the First Sentence of a Book Step 2

Step 2. Start with a concise fact

If the aphoristic remarks don't match the voice of the narrator, you can start with a concise statement from the narrator. Many classic novels are opened this way, including Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man ("I am an invisible man"), and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 ("It was a pleasure to burn").

  • Think about the type of personality your narrator has. Delve into his greatest triumphs, his greatest struggles, and his final downfall, if he has one.
  • Put yourself in the narrator's place. How could you update a reader on one or two concise, all-encompassing sentences?
  • It can be helpful to imagine yourself as the storyteller talking to an invisible partner, and perhaps having a coffee or a drink. What would your narrator say in a moment of absolute truth, which would be a starting point for the story?
Write the First Sentence of a Book Step 3
Write the First Sentence of a Book Step 3

Step 3. Open with a deceptively complex statement

Some renowned novel authors have chosen to begin their books with a simple fact that has a greater meaning. Try to start with an observation that seems simple on the surface, but after the reader has finished the novel, it will be clear that this sentence carries much more weight than it seemed.

  • This type of opening line may work best if you finish a draft of the novel, then come back to rewrite the beginning during the review process. You will need to know what happens and how each character develops on the page to make a meaningful and complex statement on the first line.
  • As you read the first draft of your novel, think: "Where is the key to the psyche, the struggle, or the ultimate victory of the protagonist?"
Write the First Sentence of a Book Step 4
Write the First Sentence of a Book Step 4

Step 4. Use the first line to set an element

A classic strategy for writing the first line of a book is to establish some literary element that leads the reader towards the narrative. You can use the first line to set the mood for the book, introduce the voice of the narrator (or the voice of a main character), or frame the time and place the book takes place.

  • There is no right or wrong method here. You may have to play with different set items until you find the one that best suits your book.
  • Think about what would work best to orient the reader to your book, and from there, move on.

Method 2 of 4: Start a novel

Write the First Sentence of a Book Step 5
Write the First Sentence of a Book Step 5

Step 1. Pick a provocative incident

Most novels involve some kind of provocative incident, that is, an event or situation that sets off the action of the novel. Whether or not the incident occurs in the first few sentences of a novel, the beginning of the book should establish what will drive the rest of the narrative.

  • A provocative incident should clarify the initial "surface level" problem of the main character. That problem will end up setting the stage for the larger issues the character will grapple with throughout the novel.
  • No matter what the end result of the novel is, the main character must fight and not overcome his initial surface problem. If it were a problem you could easily overcome, there would be no novel beyond that provocative incident.
  • Whatever action the main character (and supporting characters) takes to solve the initial problem must be a faulty action. Whether it is a failure of the character's ethics, or simply a circumstance that is bigger than he thinks, he has to fight and set future problems that will be addressed in the novel.
Write the First Sentence of a Book Step 6
Write the First Sentence of a Book Step 6

Step 2. Decide how to introduce the characters

The first chapter of a novel should at least introduce the main character as well as others. However, the way you introduce that character (and any other supporting character) can mean the difference between a natural progression of events and a strident intrusion into the narrative.

  • Do not load the background of a character. If you tell the character's life story before you have the plot defined, readers will be confused or discouraged by the novel.
  • Remember to make your characters believable. Don't try to write a hero who is always absolutely good or a villain who is always bad; No one in real life can be defined this way, so your characters shouldn't be either.
Write the First Sentence of a Book Step 7
Write the First Sentence of a Book Step 7

Step 3. Think about how to orient the reader

The beginning of a novel serves as a kind of orientation for the reader. You need to grab his attention, drop him (either abruptly or gradually) onto the setting and mood of the narrative, and at least introduce the main character. There are endless ways to do this, and the choice ultimately lies in your tastes and what you think will be the best structure for the story.

  • Starting with a description of a scene or character is a common way to start a novel. But long descriptions can easily bore a reader, especially if you haven't invested in the novel yet.
  • Opening up with some dialogue is a good way to introduce the protagonist and show how they interact with others (which can be very revealing). However, the dialogue can be delicate, and opening the book in this way can discourage readers who do not like the way the character speaks.
  • Many novels begin "in medias res," a Latin term meaning "in the midst of things." This means starting the book somewhere in the middle of the action, which would otherwise take a few more chapters to unfold and unfold.
Write the First Sentence of a Book Step 8
Write the First Sentence of a Book Step 8

Step 4. Put it all together

Once you've outlined the main character's personality, the provocative incident, and how to steer the reader toward your novel, you'll need to put it all together. This is where you stop planning and start writing the first sentence of the novel.

  • Don't be afraid to try different approaches. Write the first sentence in different ways (in half res, opening with description, etc.) and see what feels most natural to you and most appropriate for the story.
  • Try not to let this step intimidate you. Remember that you have the option to go back and edit, review, or trim scenes completely, but you can only make changes once you've put the pencil on the page (or started typing on the keyboard).
Write the First Sentence of a Book Step 9
Write the First Sentence of a Book Step 9

Step 5. Write the last sentence of the first chapter

It may sound strange that starting a book from the first sentence requires an end to the first chapter. But some experts say it can help keep you on track and find some sense of direction for each chapter, including the very beginning of the novel.

  • Think of each chapter as a journey from point A to point B.
  • Your first sentence, which you now have, is point A. Without a point B in mind, you could end up wandering aimlessly and forgetting what you intended that chapter to accomplish.
  • You can always change the last sentence once you get to the end of the chapter. The point is to give yourself some kind of concrete end point to work towards.

Method 3 of 4: Start a Nonfiction Book

Write the First Sentence of a Book Step 10
Write the First Sentence of a Book Step 10

Step 1. Select a form

Non-fiction is a broad genre, encompassing everything that is not invented. This can include memoirs, personal essays, a history book, a cookery book, self-help guides, and even travel guides. Before you start writing a nonfiction book, you should have a pretty good idea of what kind of book you are hoping to write.

  • Personal essays are generally reflective or meditative, and can be about past or current events in your life. An essay should explore a topic or event in depth, examining it from all angles and looking beyond the surface of things.
  • Memories tend to contextualize a singular event or situation from the past, analyzing it with a new vision of the present. These often talk about why an event was significant, what it meant to the writer at the time, and why it is important to him now.
  • How-to books, such as travel guides, self-help books, and cookbooks, tend to be equal parts research and instruction. You will need to know what you are talking about (from credible and trustworthy sources), and you will need to be able to tell the reader what to do and when to do it.
  • History books require extensive research, and they often need some kind of authority from the author. If you don't have a college degree in history, readers may wonder why you are qualified to write about historical events.
Write the First Sentence of a Book Step 11
Write the First Sentence of a Book Step 11

Step 2. Find out what your end point is

Just as a novel requires the author to know where his book is going, so does a nonfiction book. Without knowing where your narrative leads, you risk wandering aimlessly trying to get there.

  • Calculate the narrative arc of the nonfiction book. Where is everything that is being built heading, and what information or details are necessary to get the reader to that point?
  • Divide your narrative into a series of events and the complications that surround each one. For example, an event in the book could be your birthday party, and the complication could be that your parents forgot it was that day.
  • Every action, obstacle, and person described in the book should contribute to the ending point of the book. If they are not relevant, no matter how interesting they may be, you may need to cut them out.
Write the First Sentence of a Book Step 12
Write the First Sentence of a Book Step 12

Step 3. Start writing

Unlike a novel, you cannot create characters and scenes in your head. Non-fiction requires that people and experiences be real, and the dialogue must be as true as possible (taking into account the limiting factor of memory). How you decide to begin your nonfiction book should be a natural starting point for the true story you are trying to tell.

  • Like a novel, a non-fiction narrative book (specifically a collection of memoirs or essays), must have some kind of provocative incident. You can't make up the incident like you would in fiction, so find out which event really set your life up for the bigger events the book is about.
  • Starting the book with an incident, or even starting it in half res, can hook the reader with the intensity of the actions or tragedies that occurred in your life.
  • Many nonfiction books begin with what is called a status quo scene - a description of what your life was like before the provocative incident. It's a good way to attract a reader, because he knows that something will inevitably shake up the way your life is at first and he's motivated to keep reading.
Write the First Sentence of a Book Step 13
Write the First Sentence of a Book Step 13

Step 4. Keep perspective under control

It goes without saying that the memoirs or collection of personal essays will be told from your point of view. Everything that happens in the book should have happened to you, and you are obligated to tell that story as completely and truthfully as possible. However, many people find it difficult to keep their personal perspective in check while writing about real life events. Everyone experiences an event differently, and everyone will have a different perspective on the details of what happened, so be careful when writing about your life, and the people and events in it.

  • Don't describe yourself as a hero or a victim. Even if you feel that way, it will be clear to the reader that there are things that are being held and that could completely turn him off.
  • Remember that you are like everyone else: a real, living, slightly flawed human being. You are not perfect, and the people in your life are not objectively mean or malicious.
  • Everything requires balance in the narrative. Even if your memoirs are about a troubled childhood, no reader will believe that you were unhappy 24/7. So balance those heartbreaking moments with some lighter ones. Those that represent your best days next to the worst.

Method 4 of 4: Plan the Rest of Your Book

Write the First Sentence of a Book Step 14
Write the First Sentence of a Book Step 14

Step 1. Decide what your book is about

Before starting any writing project, it is important to have a firm idea in mind of what you are going to write. This may sound obvious, but it is an important part of planning any book extension project.

  • Know the story you want to tell.
  • Decide which characters (real or made-up people, fictional characters) are relevant.
  • Recognize what the crisis is in your story, and every story needs some kind of crisis.
  • Remember that every good story, fiction or not, must include some kind of personal discovery or revelation that leads to some kind of later change.
Write the First Sentence of a Book Step 15
Write the First Sentence of a Book Step 15

Step 2. Outline everything

Some writers think that an outline is too restrictive. While this may be true for some people, many writers can easily go astray without an outline. You risk rambling on irrelevant tangents, or even forgetting to include a pertinent detail or event. A good outline should include:

  • a solid understanding of the subject;
  • the narrative arc of your book (where everything is headed);
  • the main settings for each scene;
  • the characters involved (whether real or imaginary);
  • what each scene or chapter is trying to accomplish (within the context of its story arc).
Write the First Sentence of a Book Step 16
Write the First Sentence of a Book Step 16

Step 3. Make each phrase relevant

Some beginning authors try to make the first chapter a prologue, or turn page after page describing a scene / landscape. Others try to use a false start, such as a dream sequence that feels real. However, literary agents and the public alike are often dissatisfied or even misled by these beginnings. Instead of relying on gimmicks or gimmicks, try to make each page relevant, attractive, and well-written.

  • Avoid tangential or irrelevant descriptions. Remember Anton Chekhov's advice: "If you put a loaded gun in a scene, it should go off."
  • Reduce descriptions by omitting unnecessary adverbs and adjectives. If the reader can get a picture of what you are describing from the nouns and verbs (and some limited adjectives), an adverb that describes the verb is probably not necessary.
  • Remember the old saying: "Show, don't tell." In other words, act out the scene, the person, or the action, rather than telling it to the reader.
  • Remember that not all landscapes, buildings, people and actions need to be shown too much. Focus on what is important and let the reader's imagination fill in the rest.


  • Be careful when using dialogue to open the conversation, as it can put a reader off if they don't like how your characters talk or interact. Dialogue can be a great opening line, but you need to be sure that you can pull it off.
  • Don't be afraid to go overboard, but avoid cliches.
  • Your first line or paragraph should hook the reader and leave him wanting to read more.
  • Consider using a word processor to check for spelling or grammar mistakes. Also use a thesaurus to find unusual synonyms and a dictionary to make sure you are using the correct word.
  • Read up on established writers in your chosen genre. Search online for recommendations from various authors and visit your local library or bookstore.
  • Don't use too many superlatives. You should also avoid overusing the adverb, as this tends to dilute a part of the writing.

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