A publisher once said that of the fifty or so manuscripts that landed on his desk every week, he would read the first sentence only. If it interested him enough, he would read the next one. Here are some ideas to help make that first sentence work very hard for you.
Wait until your first draft is finished and you know exactly what your book is about. Experiment with different styles and lengths of sentence that catch the spirit and major ideas of your work.
Try some of these. You won't be able to follow them all, but they give you a good idea of what works for others. See which ones you like, and imitate them. Try to find a 'hook' that will interest your reader enough to make him go to sentence two.
Begin in media res: in the middle of things:
We slept in what had once been the gymnasium. (Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale).
Who is 'we'? Why is the gymnasium no longer a gymnasium? How did the sleepers end up there? What has happened so far? What will happen when they wake up?
This is a short sentence with all sorts of hooks flying around. Here's a longer one:
I could think of three good reasons for not going to Moscow, one of which was twenty-six, blonde, and upstairs unpacking her suitcase. (Dick Francis, Trial Run)
Why doesn't the speaker want to go to Moscow? What other reasons does he have? Who wants him to go? We guess he will, so how is he persuaded?
Note how in both these sentences, the authors assume you have as much knowledge as their speakers. They leave questions unanswered, and most readers will stick around long enough to find out the answers.
Don't be in a hurry to answer these questions. Use them to pull the reader into your story.
Try something short and intriguing:
They're out there. (Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest)
This is sparse, simple, and full of paranoia and fear. It is a perfect example of the atmosphere and style of the entire book.
The book was thick and black and covered with dust. (A. S. Byatt, Possession)
Like Kesey's opening, Byatt's focuses on one of the major elements of her work: it is a literary hunt through books and libraries. Those adjectives you are always being told to remove work well here. They slow the pace, and give the mind something to see. But the hook remains: What book? Who has it? What will happen when it is opened?
Involve the reader directly. Use 'you' or ask a question:
You know how it is there early in the morning in Havana with the bums still asleep against the walls of the buildings, before even the ice wagons come by with ice for the bars? (Ernest Hemingway, To Have and Have Not)
Or give an order:
Will you look at us by the river! (Tim Winton, Cloudstreet)
Start off with a bang:
The glass in the French window shattered. (Kerry Greenwood, Cocaine Blues)
Give an insight into one of the main characters:
Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick. (Stephen King, The Shining)
Don't forget your major themes:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a large fortune must be in want of a wife. (Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice)
Note how so many of these openers introduce the atmosphere or tone of the story. Paranoia, gentle humour, wonder- whatever you find in the beginning will be there throughout. Here's another:
Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. (J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone)
Doesn't this capture the complacency and stuffiness of the family, which contrasts so well with the wonder of magic? And don't you want to find out why they are so defensive and sniffy?
Establish time and place, if these are important elements of your tale:
In Poland's deepest autumn, a tall young man in an expensive overcoat, double-breasted dinner jacket beneath it and - in the lapel of the dinner jacket - a large ornamental gold-on-black enamel swastika, emerged from a fashionable apartment block in Straszewskiego Street on the edge of the ancient centre of Crakow, and saw his chauffeur waiting with fuming breath by the open door of an enormous and, even in this blackened world, lustrous Adler limousine. (Thomas Keneally, Schindler's Ark/ Schindler's List)
Try a non sequitur: put things together which will make the reader want to know what they have to do with each other:
Mr Dunworthy opened the door to the laboratory and his spectacles promptly steamed up. (Connie Willis, Doomsday Book)
Your first sentence is your most important. It sets the stage for your story, introduces a main theme or idea or character, establishes the tone for what follows, and pulls your reader in to your fictional world.
And once you have written it, make sure every other sentence is just as good!
A reader sent us his favourite opening sentence:
We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold. (Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas)
His comment: It has a certain magic to it. I knew the first time I heard it that I was hooked.