How to Write a Captivating First Sentence: Tips, Guidelines and Examples

Updated on May 6, 2018
kalinin1158 profile image

Lana is a published writer and editor who helps aspiring authors take their writing to the next level.

Every part of the story is important, but nothing is as crucial to captivating the reader as the opening sentence.

Yet many writers overlook the role of the first sentence, starting their novels (short stories, articles) with a cliché, a long boring sentence or even something artificially sensational for the "shock value".

Wouldn't you rather have a great first sentence? It may sound like a daunting task, but it doesn't have to be. All you need is a few simple guidelines to steer you in the right direction, and some brilliant examples to give you the inspiration. You'll be scribbling captivating opening sentences in no time.

Shall we begin?

An opening sentence is like an invitation to the party you're throwing.
An opening sentence is like an invitation to the party you're throwing. | Source

General Guidelines for Writing a Great First Sentence

As part of my never-ending quest to become a better writer I took a class called "The Art of Fiction". One of the home assignments was to write an enthralling first sentence. It could be anything - from introducing a character to describing a feeling - as long as it made people want to read on. The sentences are then to be read for an in-class critique.

My first sentence was:

"I always remind people that Jesus Christ is our lord and savior."

I wrote it after I saw a truck with the phrase "Jesus Christ is not a swear word" printed on it in huge letters, so I imagined a guy who takes this message seriously. Some born-again Californian bum with a sun-scorched face and a spark of insanity in clear blue eyes. Someone who truly believes, and who's been to hell and back.

Not to brag, but that sentence evoked the most personal reactions. People liked the use of an authoritative "I" and a sense of distance between author and character who they envisioned as a sheltered, scary, self-righteous evangelical nut. My favorite feedback was that it "makes you scared to read on," and that the story "could go anywhere". In fact, let's make that one the first first sentence guideline:

  1. Mystify your reader. Make the first sentence intriguing or somewhat open-ended. Think of it as your mini masterpiece complete in itself, a tantalizing first taste of your literary treat.
  2. Don't use deception to "lure" your reader. Like false advertisement, a false premise is disappointing and maddening. The first sentence should hint on what your story's going to be about without giving it all away.
  3. Be bold. Get to the point. Avoid any "fluff" in your opening line. Make sure it includes some essential information that establishes the parameters of your story.
  4. Be creative. Surprise. Rattle. Catch off guard. As Graham Greene had said, a story's beginning or ending is arbitrary. It can begin anywhere because it's just "that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead."
  5. Use humor. There's nothing better than humor to break the ice, whether it's an opening line of a speech or the first sentence of a book.

(Disclaimer: These are guidelines; not hard rules. Sometimes opening sentences that shouldn't work in theory do work in a paradoxical way, or to establish a character's voice or the tone of the story.)

Writing the first sentence doesn't have to be torture. Play! Joke! Improvise!
Writing the first sentence doesn't have to be torture. Play! Joke! Improvise! | Source

[An opening line] should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.

— Stephen King

Examples of Outstanding First Sentences

"All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877)

This is a classic example you will find in any anthology listing the best first lines. Making a deep philosophical statement right off the bat is a very powerful way to begin your story.

"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)

Another classic. Jane Austen is showing off her wit in this opening line, demonstrating how a little humor can go a long way.

"Early one evening, during an exceptional heat wave in the beginning of July, a young man walked out into the street from the closetlike room he rented on Stoliarny Place." Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment (1866)

I like that first sentence because it takes you right into the heart of the action. Immediately you feel that the young man is up to no good, that the heat and the closet-size room may be affecting his psychological state, and something big is going to happen.

"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)

This incredible opening line starts by describing something trivial (hot summer), then juxtaposing it with a rather shocking detail about that summer, and finally wrapping it up in ambiguity and disorientation. Brava, Sylvia!

"People did not know what she knew, that she was not really a woman but a man, often a fat man, but more often, probably, an old man." Lydia Davis, What She Knew (2009)

Lydia Davis is the master of flash fiction.This particular short story is only a paragraph long, but it packs a punch! To truly appreciate that first sentence you have to read the second one: "The fact that she was an old man made it hard for her to be a young woman."

"Nick Naylor had been called many things since becoming chief spokesman for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, but until now no one had actually compared him to Satan." Christopher Buckley, Thank You for Smoking (1994)

This is my new favorite first line. What a way to introduce the main character! It gives you an idea of who Nick Naylor is and what he might be like, but at the same time you can't help wondering how evil could he be to be compared to Satan, and what did he do now?

"When I was single, I was convinced my friends who took the plunge and had their first baby were victims of an alien abduction, because they would disappear from the planet and reappear a year later as unrecognizable strangers." — Jim Gaffigan, Dad Is Fat (2013)

Comedian and "Hot Pocket guy" Jim Gaffigan starts the first chapter of his funny book about the joys of parenting with this gem. Most people know him for his unique (and somewhat food-centered) comedic style, but he is also a gifted writer! I was hooked immediately by that first sentence, and this turned out to be the best parenting book I've ever read.

"The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new." — Samuel Beckett, Murphy (1938)

Love that one. With this short sentence Beckett effortlessly establishes the mood of his avant-garde novel. The opening line reveals the absurdity of the human condition and the longing for something else, something meaningful, perhaps. Here's another famous opening line with an element of absurd:

"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."George Orwell, 1984 (1949)

And another one:

"As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin." Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis (1915)

As far as surprising first sentences go, Kafka's Metamorphosis is the paragon of the unexpected. The character wakes up as a giant insect! The seemingly mundane tone of the first line intensifies the horror of the situation.

"All children, except one, grow up." J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan (1911)

Short and poignant, this first line tells you everything you need to know about the main character.

"They shoot the white girl first." Toni Morrison, Paradise (1998)

What a starter! Is there any chance you're not going to read the next sentence? Nope.

What are you waiting for?

They say: A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. The first sentence is that first step.

My hope is that this selection might inspire someone to write their own masterpiece.

Now that you know everything you need to know about writing a captivating first sentence, what are you waiting for? Begin your journey today!

Seriously, like, now.

Questions & Answers

    © 2015 Lana Adler

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      • kalinin1158 profile imageAUTHOR

        Lana Adler 

        7 months ago from California

        Thank you! I'm so glad that fellow writers find this hub useful :)

      • Venkatachari M profile image

        Venkatachari M 

        7 months ago from Hyderabad, India

        I once again re-read this to get some more inspirations for writing. Your hub is very much inspiring and useful.

      • kalinin1158 profile imageAUTHOR

        Lana Adler 

        9 months ago from California

        I can, but I have a strict "do-your-school-assignments-yourself" policy, Sweety :)

      • profile image

        Sweety 

        9 months ago

        Can you give me sentence that developed the main idea ,Using the 4 types of paragraph

        1.) Anedote

        2.) Intruiging

        3.) Quotation

        4.) Question

      • kalinin1158 profile imageAUTHOR

        Lana Adler 

        16 months ago from California

        Thank you Sam. Hope it inspires you to write your own great first line!

      • Sam Dreiberg profile image

        Sam Dreiberg 

        16 months ago from India

        Must say Lana.. u made that first sentence so fun! This post certainly teach how to make important things fun and easy.

        I read some great first lines in your hub. Amazing!

      • kalinin1158 profile imageAUTHOR

        Lana Adler 

        2 years ago from California

        Misfit Chick, I don know how HOTDs are chosen, it never happened to me before so I'm as surprised as you are. To your point, I've seen plenty of HOTDs that were written years before they were featured. HP works in mysterious ways...

        Thank you for your criticism of my sentence. For me, it was an example of how the first sentence can be used to establish a character's voice. And most people's reactions indicated that they were intrigued rather than turned off. But I understand your point.

        Peace,

        Lana

      • kalinin1158 profile imageAUTHOR

        Lana Adler 

        2 years ago from California

        Thank you Kristen! It's my first :)

      • Misfit Chick profile image

        Catherine Mostly 

        2 years ago from Seattle, WA - USA - The WORLD

        I guess I am a little uniformed about HotD - I would have thought that they would be recently-written hubs (at least around that day). The literary examples are a great help. I do have one more suggestion for your first sentence example of, "I always remind people that Jesus Christ is our lord and savior."

        Unless you are intending this book to be written towards people who believe like this - you may end up turning a large portion of your audience away before they give it a chance (like the poll suggests many readers do) - simply by turning them off with such a controversial statement (that also often leaves a bad taste in people's mouths, so to speak).

        Although, extra brownie-points for it being a 'striking' & personal captivator for people it does hook. :)

      • Kristen Howe profile image

        Kristen Howe 

        2 years ago from Northeast Ohio

        Lana, since I've read this hub already months ago, I'm stopping by to say congrats on HOTD! Well done!

      • kalinin1158 profile imageAUTHOR

        Lana Adler 

        2 years ago from California

        Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Eldon. You're right, it is rare that you find such an intriguing, even shocking opening that doesn't consequently turn out to be just another trick in a writer's bag, an entertaining teaser to disguise a mediocre story.

        I also love an opening line from "The Trial": “Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.”

        Always great to hear from you,

        Lana :)

      • Eldon Arsenaux profile image

        Eldon Arsenaux 

        2 years ago from Cooley, Texas

        You are correct in this, 'yet many writers overlook... "shock value".' The difficulty is painting a portrait people will stop and stare at, wanting them to linger, without an indifferent attitude. Kafka's opening sentence for that story is, for me, the most intriguing, because it is bold. Metamorphosis is a gripping, stomach-queasy story, that makes good on its initial promise --as did this hub.

        Blesses Lana,

        -E.G.A.

      • profile image

        Gillian 

        2 years ago

        Great help for my journalism class! :D

      • kalinin1158 profile imageAUTHOR

        Lana Adler 

        2 years ago from California

        Thank you so much breathing! I'm really glad you've found this article helpful, and thanks for stopping by!

      • breathing profile image

        Sajib 

        2 years ago from Bangladesh

        The author has brought up an excellent masterpiece on writing an attractive first sentence. Indeed man readers ignore great article where they do not feel attracted with the opening piece of writing. On the other hand there are many ordinary pieces of writings where the first sentence is fair enough to attract the readers. As the author suggests the first should give a clear message about what the writer is trying to tell. The examples described in this post are really helpful. So please read this post and tell other writers so the all of you can start the writings in a great fashion!

      • kalinin1158 profile imageAUTHOR

        Lana Adler 

        2 years ago from California

        It's all good Scott, whatever captivates your attention or curiosity :)

      • promisem profile image

        Scott S Bateman 

        2 years ago

        The title of this Hub is captivating. I suppose that's the first sentence, isn't it? :)

      • kalinin1158 profile imageAUTHOR

        Lana Adler 

        2 years ago from California

        Wow great example Nadine! Makes me want to know what happens next, and what are all those symbols?? For me, too, the first sentence is often the most difficult part. Once that's settled and perfect, the rest of the story/article starts to emerge. But I'm also painfully aware of the importance of the last sentence :)

      • Nadine May profile image

        Nadine May 

        2 years ago from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa

        You are so right. It has taken me ages to settle on the first sentence of any of my novels. Sometimes my whole book has been written when the first sentence comes to me. example: Richard de Jong leaned forward so as not to miss a thing. His notebook resembled a child’s scrapbook. Scribbles of symbols that made sense only to him became alive in his mind.

      • kalinin1158 profile imageAUTHOR

        Lana Adler 

        3 years ago from California

        Thank you Glenn! And I agree, the summary is so crucial! In a way, it serves as a first sentence, and in online writing it may be the most important sentence of the whole piece. Thank you for commenting!

      • Glenn Stok profile image

        Glenn Stok 

        3 years ago from Long Island, NY

        After reading this hub I went back and reviewed it a second time. That's how important I felt your information is. Your idea of captivating the reader with the first sentence is crucial to the success of a book or an article. I think this is also important to consider for the summary on hubs, since that is what people see first in search listings and on author's profiles.

        Congratulations for having this hub selected for the weekly Editor's Choice spotlight!

      • kalinin1158 profile imageAUTHOR

        Lana Adler 

        3 years ago from California

        Thank you Kristen :) I didn't even think about agents or editors, but you're absolutely right!

      • Kristen Howe profile image

        Kristen Howe 

        3 years ago from Northeast Ohio

        Great tips in this helpful hub. A first sentence should be able to hook readers, and maybe even an agent and editor as well in the future.

      • kalinin1158 profile imageAUTHOR

        Lana Adler 

        3 years ago from California

        allpurposeguru, this is one spectacular first sentence! Never read the book, but loving how it starts. I might have to expand this hub to include it!

      • kalinin1158 profile imageAUTHOR

        Lana Adler 

        3 years ago from California

        Nastya, wow, another hubber from Russia! Always good to hear from the motherland :) thank you for reading and commenting! Of course, a random-page-reader like you negates my entire hypothesis :)

      • kalinin1158 profile imageAUTHOR

        Lana Adler 

        3 years ago from California

        M M Cuirs, you've proposed a very interesting idea! I never thought of last sentences in the same way I think of first sentences, but you are so right, the last sentence has a big impact, too, and it would be a mistake to underscore its importance. Thanks for the suggestion and for reading!

      • allpurposeguru profile image

        David Guion 

        3 years ago from North Carolina

        My all time favorite:

        The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no one in the room but the corpse. (War in Heaven, by Charles Williams).

      • Nastya Bronnikova profile image

        Anastasia Bronnikova 

        3 years ago from Russia, Novosibirsk

        What a nice, concise, hub! You've done a great job balancing general principles, examples and commentary. I'm more of a 'open a random page, get a sample of writing, screw spoilers' type, so looking at opening lines from this angle was especially interesting.

      • profile image

        M M Cuirs 

        3 years ago

        This is interesting and I agree with you completely. When writing the first line, I think of the emotion I want the reader to feel, and try to find the words to evoke that emotion. It takes me a long time to get it just right and can't move on until I do. The same thing happens with the last sentence. The first and last are always my favorites and are/should be some of the most powerful lines in the piece. Could you write a piece on that too? I'm sure many could benefit from that as well.

      • kalinin1158 profile imageAUTHOR

        Lana Adler 

        3 years ago from California

        Seafarer Mama, MsDora, you are very welcome! I'm glad you found this hub useful!

        MarleneB, DebMartin, thank you! I love literature, and it's such a joy sharing that love with the fellow writers.

      • kalinin1158 profile imageAUTHOR

        Lana Adler 

        3 years ago from California

        robie2, you've made such a great point. Writing 'for the Internet' is not the same as just 'writing', there are other factors to consider, like, keywords. Maybe if Tolstoy was writing "Anna Karenina" today, his first sentence would have been something like: "Family Dysfunction: Marriage, Infidelity, Train and Suicide". Thank god he wasn't! :)

      • kalinin1158 profile imageAUTHOR

        Lana Adler 

        3 years ago from California

        D D VanGarde, you are so welcome, and I do hope that your dream of being a writer becomes more than a dream. I think you can never really walk away from being a writer, because you can just pick up a pen and paper or a laptop and start writing any time you want... Thanks for stopping by!

      • kalinin1158 profile imageAUTHOR

        Lana Adler 

        3 years ago from California

        Jodah, thank you for mentioning poetry, I completely overlooked it! And I agree, the first verse is just as important as the first sentence.

      • kalinin1158 profile imageAUTHOR

        Lana Adler 

        3 years ago from California

        You are very welcome Venkatachari M. Thanks for your kind words, and for the FB add!

      • profile image

        DebMartin 

        3 years ago

        I love your examples.

      • MsDora profile image

        Dora Weithers 

        3 years ago from The Caribbean

        Very useful and interesting! Thanks for this powerful lesson underscoring the importance of the first sentence. Great examples!

      • MarleneB profile image

        Marlene Bertrand 

        3 years ago from USA

        Wonderful tips with awesome examples. This is a true learning tool.

      • Seafarer Mama profile image

        Karen A Szklany 

        3 years ago from New England

        Great hub, Lane! Very fun hub, and I will keep your points in mind as I write the pieces that I am working on at present.

      • robie2 profile image

        Roberta Kyle 

        3 years ago from Central New Jersey

        And where is that old chestnut from Bulwar-Lyton "It was a dark and stormy night"?You are so right about the importance of the first sentence, particularly in fiction. I'd also stay that when writing for the internet, a first sentence containing relevant keywords is also , ahem " key" and combining the two is not always an easy task. Nice job.... voted up and interesting.

      • D D VanGarde profile image

        D D VanGarde 

        3 years ago

        Thank you for this hub, it was very informative and reminded me of some things I'd forgotten. I walked away from my dream of being a writer for quite some time and sometimes need a refresher course on some things. I will be referencing this hub as needed.

      • Jodah profile image

        John Hansen 

        3 years ago from Queensland Australia

        Very good advice here and you included some truly great opening lines kalinini1158. I admit the first line can capture the readers attention, but I do usually allow them the first paragraph to trap me. Even as a poet, and the fact that poetry is usually much shorter than a story, I find the opening verse/stanza to be equally as important. thanks for sharing. Voted up.

      • Venkatachari M profile image

        Venkatachari M 

        3 years ago from Hyderabad, India

        Awesome! Your hub is very interesting. So many rich examples of first sentences. You selected the pearls to inspire us and presented them so beautifully. Thank you so much for sharing this great knowledge with us.

        Voted up and awesome.

      • kalinin1158 profile imageAUTHOR

        Lana Adler 

        3 years ago from California

        That would be a start, Dressage Husband :) My hope is that it will inspire you to come up with a great first sentence, otherwise what is it all for? lol

      • kalinin1158 profile imageAUTHOR

        Lana Adler 

        3 years ago from California

        I am the same way, pstraubie48. If the first sentence or so is blah, I just move on. Sad, but true. Maybe I've missed some great books because of that, but I think generally speaking, the first sentence is a pretty good indicator of how good the book's gonna be. Thanks for reading and commenting, and for the Angels message :)

      • Dressage Husband profile image

        Stephen J Parkin 

        3 years ago from Pine Grove, Nova Scotia, Canada

        Now you have captured my interest what comes next? Voting up as interesting and useful?

      • pstraubie48 profile image

        Patricia Scott 

        3 years ago from sunny Florida

        That first sentence, those first few sentences, even the first page are what gets a book off the shelf and home with me. In some cases it takes a bit longer to really get in to the story but if I am not hooked very quickly I replace the book. That may not seem fair but there are so many choices that I just had to waste time trying to muddle through.

        Great points thanks for sharing Angels are on the way to you this morning ps

      • kalinin1158 profile imageAUTHOR

        Lana Adler 

        3 years ago from California

        Thank you aesta1, you honor me with such kind words. I wish you many wonderful enticing first sentences!

      • aesta1 profile image

        Mary Norton 

        3 years ago from Ontario, Canada

        Excellent hub. Reading this is a joy. I will always think of this hub when I write my first sentence.

      • kalinin1158 profile imageAUTHOR

        Lana Adler 

        3 years ago from California

        Thank you RoadMonkey, what a cheeky profile name, I like it :)

      • kalinin1158 profile imageAUTHOR

        Lana Adler 

        3 years ago from California

        Good evening Marilyn, it's good to meet you :) Thank you very much for your kind words and yes, this is a Russian surname, although not mine, technically.

      • MDavisatTIERS profile image

        Marilyn L Davis 

        3 years ago from Georgia

        Good evening, Kalinin1158; excellent article. Kalinin is Russian isn't it? To the point, you give outstanding examples that illustrate the importance of first sentences. However, your own writing is equally as effective. Good job. Voted up, shared on Twitter and useful, intersting and awesome. ~Marilyn

      • RoadMonkey profile image

        RoadMonkey 

        3 years ago

        Great hub. Very useful information and interesting examples.

      • kalinin1158 profile imageAUTHOR

        Lana Adler 

        3 years ago from California

        RonElFran, you're absolutely right: first sentences in non-fiction pieces are just as important! Kind of makes me want to re-write the first sentences of all my hubs! Thank you for reading.

      • kalinin1158 profile imageAUTHOR

        Lana Adler 

        3 years ago from California

        Lol Easy Exercise, that sentence alone tells me you're a writer, don't sell yourself short :)

      • kalinin1158 profile imageAUTHOR

        Lana Adler 

        3 years ago from California

        Joel Diffendarfer, thank you for your kind words. I can relate to what you're describing :) I tend to suddenly become a perfectionist when I'm writing a first line - it has to be just right, like a mini-masterpiece!

      • kalinin1158 profile imageAUTHOR

        Lana Adler 

        3 years ago from California

        Ethan Digby-New, I'm always looking for a great first line whenever I'm reading something. Because these Internet anthologies of best first lines - they're almost identical to one another, and it became a new fun game for me to find new awesome opening lines :)

      • kalinin1158 profile imageAUTHOR

        Lana Adler 

        3 years ago from California

        Thank you ladyguitarpicker! I hope these first lines were inspirational to you :)

      • kalinin1158 profile imageAUTHOR

        Lana Adler 

        3 years ago from California

        God, I wish there was a 12-step program for that...

      • Mel Carriere profile image

        Mel Carriere 

        3 years ago from San Diego California

        We all battle inertia, that's a universal quality.

      • kalinin1158 profile imageAUTHOR

        Lana Adler 

        3 years ago from California

        Thank you Mel! I do hope you're right :) it's really a daily battle between Russian brilliant heritage and Russian inertia ...

      • kalinin1158 profile imageAUTHOR

        Lana Adler 

        3 years ago from California

        Bill, I've found your first paragraph hub, and I agree with it a 100%. Shock is good, when it's the real deal :)

        And I appreciate the feedback you've given me on my writing. I am more conscious of my voice now, and I'm letting it come through more. It's always been difficult for me - letting people know who I am. So even in my writing I am often behind a mask of anonymity. But I'm taking the mask off more now, and I appreciate your feedback and support. And thanks for stopping by again!

      • RonElFran profile image

        Ronald E Franklin 

        3 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

        What a powerful set of first sentences. I would think the importance of a striking first sentence is just as great in non-fiction as in fiction, so this is a good reminder for every writer. I enjoyed reading it.

      • Easy Exercise profile image

        Kelly A Burnett 

        3 years ago from United States

        As a gatherer of information who attempts to write, this is wonderful. Thank you!

      • Joel Diffendarfer profile image

        Joel Diffendarfer 

        3 years ago from Ft Collins, Colorado

        Very good article. I work hard (perhaps too hard sometimes) on my opening line in fiction stories to the point that I have them memorized--even for stories that I have "started" 30 years ago. Its funny how that works though...just my memorizing my first lines; I can recall the whole story. Well written and definitely worth a thumbs up!

      • profile image

        Ethan Digby-New 

        3 years ago

        I've read many great first lines, some of which have ended up in your list, and other pitiful first lines, to put it kindly. An amazing first line is usually one of the deciding factors in whether or not a reader continues reading the novel. Nice hub.

      • ladyguitarpicker profile image

        stella vadakin 

        3 years ago from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619

        The first sentence is the most important one makes a lot of sense. This is a great hub to show the importance of the first sentence and is very useful.

      • Mel Carriere profile image

        Mel Carriere 

        3 years ago from San Diego California

        You've included some great story starters here. Russians seem to have a talent for this so you've got a brilliant heritage behind you. Fantastic hub!

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        3 years ago from Olympia, WA

        I've written a few hubs about this. Many writers don't understand how crucial that first sentence and paragraph are...you obviously do.

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