The Famous First Sentence
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.
Looks like a pretty simple sentence, doesn’t it? But within those twenty-two words Rowling has hooked us by using five powerful yet simple writing tools.
Rowling immediately introduces two main characters: Mr. and Mrs. Dursley. Specifics draw readers in; generalizations drive them away. We might not know much about the Dursleys, but Rowling already has us imagining who they could be.
Rowling includes a specific location—not a city or a town, but an actual address: number four, Privet Drive. Again Rowling is bringing her story to life with details. Real characters have real addresses.
Rowling’s insistence that the Dursleys are “perfectly normal” foreshadows that something abnormal is certainly going to happen. She’s promising us that the story will be intriguing.
Lastly, Rowling adds warmth—a sort of humanness—when she ends her sentence with “thank you very much,” as if Mr. and Mrs. Dursley are speaking directly to us.
Rowling packed all of that into the first sentence. She continues to reel us in with her second sentence:
They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.
Rowling now has us convinced that something abnormal is right around the corner (or page). She’s building suspense. (Notice again that she adds warmth to her sentence by adding “because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense”.)
Rowling only has two more paragraphs to convince us to turn the page. So what does she do? She spends the entire second paragraph talking about how normal and boring the Dursleys are:
Mr. Dursley was the director of a firm called Grunnings, which made drills. He was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large mustache. Mrs. Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbors. The Dursleys had a small son called Dudley and in their opinion there was no finer boy anywhere.
That paragraph might seem like a waste of space for a first-page hook, but Rowling has something up her sleeve.
With a more detailed description of the Dursleys, she’s painting an even starker contrast between them and strange happenings. Great writers know that the more unlikely it seems that a certain something will happen, the more the reader will want to know if it actually does (that is, as long as the writer has made the unlikely believable).
One Last Big Hook
Rowling only has room for one last sentence to push her readers over the edge and onto the next page. Here’s what she writes:
The Dursleys had everything they ever wanted, but they also had a secret, and their greatest fear was that somebody would discover it.
Rowling lays it all out there, dangling the most tantalizing sentence yet.
Being so bold at the beginning of your story can be scary, because that means you had better deliver. Some writers try to avoid this by starting out slowly, like a train gaining momentum, but that’s a battle lost before it’s even begun. If a story has to hobble out of the gate, it’s not a good story. You have to go big or go home, and Rowling went big.