There are so many components to a novel, but the most important one is the opening sentence. Same goes for your first paragraph and your first page. It won't matter if you have the best paragraph in the history of literature on page 84, because most of your readers won't get that far if your opening words haven't hooked them.
What makes a first sentence effective? (And the key word here is effective; it doesn't have to be a stroke of genius, it just has to work). The first sentence needs to pique the reader's interest and curiosity. Done well, it will leave the reader with questions she wants answered, and she will engage immediately.
Here's the opening sentence to my upcoming novel, Blind Bet:
Courtney Langford hadn't run this fast since her softball days in college. Who is Courtney Langford and why is she running? Is she in trouble? Is she running to or from something? (The next paragraph of the novel makes it clear that she has just missed a flight, which has implications for the rest of her life). It's a simple but effective opening. It immediately prompts the reader's curiosity while also putting the reading right in the middle of an active scene. Something is happening, and there is no better way to engage a reader than to put them right in the middle of the action.
Here's another example of an active opening lead from Kenna White's Beautiful Journey:
Kit checked her fuel gauge, then rubbed a gloved hand over the condensation on the side window of the single-engine Hawker Hurricane, the workhorse of the RAF fighter command. This puts the reader in the cockpit, tells us immediately it is World War II, and leaves us wanting to know more about pilot Kit and what her mission is.
Another element to a good opening sentence is introducing an element of surprise or contradiction. Here is an example that popped into my mind:
X was smiling as she skipped out of her doctor's office. Most of us think of a doctor's visit as stressful and not something we smile about, so we want to know why X is smiling and skipping. Did she just find out she's pregnant with the baby she has been trying to have for years? Has she just been told she is now cancer-free? The possibilities are numerous.
Check out the first sentence in Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love:
I wish Giovanni would kiss me.Doesn't that one hook you right away? And her next sentence is a perfect contradiction:
Oh, but there are so many reasons why this would be a terrible idea. We want to know what those reasons are. The first sentence is hopeful, the second one squashes it, and it's a wonderful contrast.
Introducing a hint of something ominous to come will also hook the reader. Mario Puzo in The Godfather writes:
Amerigo Bonasera sat in New York Criminal Court Number 3 and waited for justice; vengeance on the men who had so cruelly hurt his daughter. The reader knows that vengeance will be exacted, if not in court, then outside of the law.
Another option is to use characterization in your opening. For this to work, however, there must be something very compelling about your character - enough to drive the opening sentence or paragraph. Here's a really good example from Lisa Scottoline's Moment of Truth:
Jack Newlin had no choice but to frame himself for murder. Wow! This makes the character immediately intriguing with the added element of shock. Why would someone want to frame himself for murder? What kind of character would do such a thing? Scottoline's next two sentences in the opening paragraph tell us more about the character:
Once he had set his course, his only fear was that he wouldn't get away with it. That he wasn't a good enough liar, even for a lawyer. This is excellent characterization and a great introduction to the plot . We know the book is going to be about Jack Newlin trying to frame himself for murder.
If you take your reader's hat off and slip on your writer's hat, think of an opening line this way: If, as a writing exercise, you can take any of the above examples of an opening line and immediately build a short story or scene around it, then the opening line has done its job. It should be that strong. It not only hooks the reader, but hooks the writer in you and sets your imagination on fire.
In summary, think active, think visual, and tell us something about the character and what is happening to her. Go for a quick hit and hook the reader as quickly as possible. And remember, it doesn't have to be fancy, just effective. You have lots of time to give us a full picture of your character and plot throughout your novel, but your opening line should put us right in the middle of something.
Keeping that momentum going will be your next challenge, but it all starts with a good opening sentence!
Tracey Richardson has had three novels published by Bella Books, with her fourth due later this year. She also works as a journalist. Visit her website at www.traceyrichardson.net or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org