Why Those First Sentences/Paragraphs Matter

Post by L.O. Nobi

You know, I never thought the first sentence or paragraph of a manuscript mattered until I started querying. I mean whenever I opened a book with a gripping first line, I definitely thought ‘whoa that’s top tier stuff’. But I didn’t think it was necessary in every book because let’s be honest, not every published book out there has bomb first lines and yet a good amount of them are still amazing.

And then I started querying and you know what? I realized that with those requested sample pages being sent to agents and editors, those chapters we hope would entice them enough to request the entire material and then offer representation/a book deal: Every. Word. Counts. And what better way to grab an agent/editor’s attention than with the very first line?

On my blog here, I detailed my experiences querying two manuscripts, and how one query turned out successful pretty quickly while the other didn’t. So far, it’s by comparing these two different approaches to querying that I’ve picked up some tips, which include having an intriguing first line.

Need proof? Alright. Let’s do this.

My Regency novel DESTITUTES AND FIENDS opens with a humorous first line and maintains the tone for the entire scene. This first sentence also sets the tone for the entire novel—something I literally just realized while writing this post. Every time I read that line, I chuckle to myself. When my beta readers first read it they all left a ‘😂’ comment on it. Its great having the feedback begin from the first line—because it means your very first sentence stirs reaction!—and have it be something positive for that matter. So, of course, I presumed that agents also had the same reaction when reading.

The earlier draft of my Fantasy’s MS on the other hand didn’t have an outstanding first line or scene. Now, I wonder if one could’ve drawn more interest, hmm. In its current update, however, the last beta reader left a comment on that very first line saying ‘ooh, this just gave me chills!’ What is this line?

The winter forest was like a starved beast, growling its satisfaction in every crunch of snow as I fed it with blood.”

Evidence number 3 that first lines do matter is with my YA dystopian, DIADEM. I’d thought the initial first line was captivating, but my (awesome) beta readers thought it was weak. So I tweaked and tweaked it, tweaking the entire paragraph with it. Then they couldn’t stop gushing about how captivating the revised version reads. Here it is:

My ambition pulled in its first breath on the dreary eve my mother pushed out her last.”

(Quick confession: I barely queried this book cause it’s my baby, and I couldn’t have it be constantly rejected).

Now, for already published authors, captivating first lines might not be necessary. As mentioned above, many published books don’t have zinging first lines, so once you get past the querying and submissions stage, you might not even have to bother yourself with this stuff. BUT as a writer still trying to get a book deal, it’s a trick I feel should be optimized. Once an agent opens your sample pages in a river of many other sample pages, you want them to read your first line and sit up straight, like ‘okay, that was good. They have my full attention. Let’s see what else they’ve got’.

Some Tips For Creating Bomb First Sentences/Paragraphs

I critiqued some first pages and suggested stronger first lines to the writers. They asked me what I thought they should write. (Good question, because I personally feel if you can point out an issue, you should be able to suggest solutions. Otherwise, how do you know it’s an issue?). At this point, I hadn’t even read beyond that first scene, so how was I supposed to give such advice and not sound clueless? Well, by the time I read through those sample pages, I knew precisely what lines could be stronger yet meaningful to the scene and the story. In the end, the writers used the exact first lines I sent as a suggestion. How did I go about crafting them?

Introduce a major character’s voice. This makes the sentence active rather than passive—which is key. Otherwise might read vaguely hence not have the desired impact.

Ask yourself: what is something my character can do in this scene that would grab attention? Did she just kill someone? (That escalated fast, huh? Well that’s what you get from someone who only writes ‘actiony’ stuff). Is she spending the last of her savings dining at the world’s best restaurant and just got a call from her bank saying her account was cleared by a fraud? (Better?)

• Another route to take is to ask yourself: what is something my MC has done in the past or plans to do in the future that’s relevant to the plot/scene, and is also likely to make a reader sit upright with attention? THE SHADOWS BETWEEN US has a cool example of this!

Choose a tone. Do you want to introduce your story with humor or lyrical writing or an ominous tone? This is super important because this is literature. It’s not just the intent that matters but how you convey that message that may or may not impress a reader.

Make sure your first line has meaning. This is VERY important. Newer writers have a tendency to use bulky words or dense sentences in those first pages, usually in hopes of appearing wiser or to create a dramatic effect. A major risk here is writing first sentences/paragraphs/scenes that are unclear or have no meaning. I’m not just saying this, I’ve read MSs with these kind of lines and I’ve written them myself. It took my author friend’s ‘what does this mean?’ comments on the MS to open my eyes to the senselessness of the sentences. So when working on your first line, don’t over-describe the sky or a river or your MCs eyes, or congest words to appear lyrical. Also, don’t make a sentence a lone paragraph if it makes no meaning on its own. Always go for concise/meaningful, and always ask for feedback!

Some books with awesome first lines/paragraphs for inspiration are:

Stalking Jack The Ripper by Kerri Maniscalco

The Inheritance Games by J.L. Barnes (The entire first scene was written awesomely!)

To Kill A Kingdom by Alexandra Christo

These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong

The Shadows Between Us by Tricia Levenseller

Do you think first lines matter? What is your WIPs first line?


L.O. Nobi is an avid writer, one of her prominent projects DESTITUTES AND FIENDS on submissions to editors. She’s a lover of words, Disney, and represented by her agent. You can find her tweeting here, or visit her personal blog here.

Published by path2pub

From The Trenches To The Shelves

21 thoughts on “Why Those First Sentences/Paragraphs Matter

  1. This is an awesome and actionable post, and goodness me, I love your first lines lady! One thing that gets me excited when I open a book is the first line. Is this going to rock my world? Or will it blend in with the rest of the book and be unnoticeable? I was excited when I saw this title! The first line for my current Wip is:

    ‘The alarm rang and Uriel’s gut clenched – it was time.”

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  2. Great post! I love the tips for writing first lines, especially with make sure it has meaning. I think I might be making that mistake of being unnecessarily verbose just to make my writing seem more advance? So this was an eye opener. Well done!

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  3. I didn’t think much about first lines until this post. Now I cannot help but think about how many debut novels have captivating first lines and then most of the author’s novels after that point don’t. How has this trick been right under my nose and I didn’t notice?
    Your first lines are GREAT! They have a lyrical flow to them, thanks for sharing. Now I’ll embarrass myself with my weak first line which I’ll be fixing this week.

    ‘All her life she’s hated doing chores.’ 😶

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    1. That actually is true. Debuts usually have stronger first lines than other books many writers publish afterwards. Thank you!

      I think this could be interesting if the following explanation of why she hates chores is relatable!

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  4. “I have always hated mornings.”

    🙈 I like to think I have a good first line here. Loved the post (and happy 2 month anniversary of Path2pub!)

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  5. This is a very helpful post Lucia! I intend to put the tips into practice and check out the listed resources until this becomes second nature. It sounds fun too.

    Also, Your first sentences are super intriguing and I’m tingling to read more. Love the personalization of the ‘winter woods’ and the ‘ambition’💞

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  6. “Blood trickled down his nose, forming crimson dots on her pale face” from my 1st WIP Dragon Isle.

    “With morning came his greatest test. He wasn’t ready” for my second WIP, Untamed.

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  7. Mine starts with a dialogue and I’ve heard many mixed comments on opening lines with dialogue. But… whatever 😄 here it goes:

    “You’re a twisted individual. Your sense of humor plain astounds me, Saul,”

    I loved this post!

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  8. I love this! The little things can make a big difference in whatever you’re doing
    Nice one Lucia ❤️

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