First Impressions Pt.1 ~
Your book cover, your blurb, and your social media presence all make huge first impressions when it comes to enticing a reader to pick up your book and look inside. But what is going to grab them by the nose hairs and keep their face plastered to the page? Your story and how you tell it.
The first sentence
The first paragraph
The first page
The first chapter
If you can hook your reader with these firsts and maintain the same level of promise throughout the book as these moments give, they’ll step up and make the commitment on their end.
The First Sentence
Here are a few of my recent favourites:
I bear a deep red stain that runs from my left shoulder down to my right hip, a trail left by the herbwitch’s poison that my mother used to try to expel me from her womb. – Grave Mercy by Robin LeFevers
After a year of slavery in the Salt Mines of Endovier, Celaena Sardothien was accustomed to being escorted everywhere in shackles and at sword-point. – Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas
Locked in darkness that surrounded me like a coffin, I had nothing to distract me from my memories. – Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder
The first thing you’ll likely notice is the genre – my indulgence is Fantasy. And while these selections just happen to be from female authors, it’s purely coincidental.
Why do these sentences work?
– They make you curious
– They drop hints
– They reveal character & personality (the main character!)
– They paint a vivid picture in your mind
How do they do this?
– Sentence Structure
Consider: “deep red stain” “expel” / “accustomed to being escorted” “shackles” / “Locked in” “like a coffin”
The choice of “deep red stain” over red mark, or something similar, begins to paint those pictures in our mind that keep us engaged and interested. The word “expel” is an interesting one – it’s not as harsh as rip or as benign as force – instead it suggests the idea of being unwanted without necessarily the connotation of hatred.
The idea that anyone could become “accustomed” to moving about in “shackles” – not cuffs or binds or rope – immediately gives the impression of strength (shackles are damn heavy and cumbersome to move about in). The word “accustomed” show us she’s more than just used to having this happen on occasion but emphasizes the repetitive nature of the task.
Opening with the idea of “Locked in” there’s no misunderstanding that this character is trapped. With the immediate simile of “like a coffin” to follow we get a good idea of the tight quarters, the darkness, the difficulty to breathe, and a sense of mortality.
Word choice is paramount to engaging a reader and revealing to their subconscious more than what lies on the surface.
Each of these sentences begins with an active idea – not action but an implied sense of movement with the lack of such phrases as:
The reader is immediately drawn into the situation with impact instead of being told, in a passive way, how the story begins.
Readers are exposed to a major element of the story right away:
A woman’s mother tried to abort her and she is now left with an unsightly scar.
A woman is a long-time slave set to work hard labour in Salt Mines.
A woman is locked up somewhere small, dark, and restrictive possibly contemplating her life before she dies.
Each of these moments is essential to the unraveling of the story and let the reader know what is important and what to look for as the book progresses. These are promises to the reader that these ideas are of great significance and there’s a tale yet to be revealed.
In your early drafts this kind of sentence crafting is not likely to happen (though some writers do stress over the exact right word before they’ll put anything down and that’s a long, strenuous process). As you hone the body of your tale and come to know the story like it was your own life (better even) you will then possess the necessary information to craft the right first sentence. Often this requires significant rewriting and reworking, and what you love one day won’t be right the next day. Eventually though, you will feel satisfaction at either getting the absolute perfect first sentence or know that it’s the closest you’re going to get.
This is the hook – bait it well and the fish will come…
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