Let’s Play the Genre Match Game!

I have heard it said that your first sentence in a novel should scream genre. Anyone should be able to pick up the book, read the first sentence and know exactly what genre they have picked up.

GenreI’m not so sure about that. Seems like a lead-in is oftentimes a pretty wise thing. Maybe with certain genres is mandatory, but others not so.

A few months ago I found a box of my old writing from twenty-thirty years ago in a closet. There is some pretty decent stuff in there. I found the beginning of a story, about one-third of a novel’s worth. I’ve reread it and now I’m recalling where I was going with this thing, so I’ve been thinking about rewriting. Obviously, this has been rattling around in my brain for quite some time and was recently refreshed.

It’s a story with paranormal elements, probably because I was experiencing some paranormal phenomena at the time, but it also has some criminal-minded suspense. It needs to be written

I’ve been mulling over how to get the rewrite started, so I took to some paranormal suspense book’s Look Insides to check out some first sentences. I learn well by example.

This is what I found in the Top Ten Amazon Best Sellers:

Paranormal suspense:


“Alone in the vastness of the Mojave, at two o’clock in the morning, racing along at seventy miles per hour, I felt safe and believed that whatever terror  might await me was yet many miles ahead.”  Saint Odd: An Odd Thomas Novel, Dean Koontz—Paranormal suspense

I was blown away. I thought this sentence really nailed it. You read it and just know “Mystery, Horror, Paranormal, Suspense, Thriller” is in front of you. I’m just waiting on the edge of my seat for something paranormal to jump out of the desert at Thomas. That first sentence made me want to buy this book.

So I looked down the list in the top ten and here are the next three:

“Plunging her hands into a wad of pizza dough, Edie Holbrook came to realize she had forgotten to turn on the radio two seconds too late.” The Bird Eater, Ania Ahlborn—Paranormal suspense

“Ghosts didn’t have much substance.” The Book of Life, Deborah Harkness—Paranormal suspense

“’All right, you handsome devils, if y’all are here for this evening’s Liar’s Tour of Savannah, then you are at the right place,’ I said, surveying the group of men who had found their way to the Waving Girl Statue.” The Line, J.D. Horn—Paranormal Suspense

I thought the Odd Thomas sentence was awesome, but the others just didn’t do it for me. None of them. Of the top ten in this genre there was not one other first sentence that even came close to paranormal suspense. “Ghosts didn’t have much substance.” Hinted of paranormal, but no suspense.

So I looked through some other genres to see what they were doing. I picked Best Seller books in the top ten that were high in ranking and had the most reviews as of nine o’clock last night. Some are by well-known authors and some not so famous.

See if you can hook these up. Either write the numbers and matching letters in comments, or privately on a piece of scratch paper. (You can check back tomorrow for results.)

The genres were:

  1. Paranormal Romance
  2. Fantasy
  3. Horror
  4. Mystery
  5. Science Fiction
  6. Historical Fiction
  7. Crime Fiction
  8. Romance

Here is a list of the first sentences:

A. “I believe in ghosts.”

B. “Women have always been the property of men.”

C. “That fucking prick.”

D. “It wasn’t a very likely place for disappearances, at least at first glance.”

E. “Karl Selig steadied himself on the ship’s rail and peered through the binoculars at the massive iceberg.”

F. “In one way, at least, our lives really are like movies.”

G. “Zoe recoiled from the nightmare only to find it still existed in the waking world.”

H. “Midnight fell at The First Bank of Cleveland with the lonely clang of the great clock in the lobby.”

Come on. Take a minute or two and play the game. Match the sentences to the genre they belong to. I’m really curious to see if this is an easy task for you.

Tomorrow I’ll post the titles, authors and genres. Honor system, no peeking.

Do first sentences have to scream genre?

Have you ever purchased a book based solely on its first sentence?

Have you ever chosen to skip a book because of its first sentence?

 If the first paragraph gets your attention, is it still necessary for the first sentence grab you?

25 thoughts on “Let’s Play the Genre Match Game!

  1. Wow, I’d never heard about the first line needing to scream genre. Interesting that you should note one from an Odd Thomas novel because I’ve been eyeing up that series. I do agree with Craig that the cover and the blurb should do the work. I’m not sure what genres match with which, but D and H have me intrigued. Can’t wait to see which books those belong to!

    • I have to admit, when I read that first sentence on the paranormal suspense about the book set in Savannah…”The Line”, I knew I’d never read it. Not because it didn’t entice me, but because The dialect was way off. No southern woman is going to say y’all in the same sentence she says you are, she’d say you’re. I went on to read the Look Inside…What a mess. How three of these books in this series are listed as best sellers in paranormal suspense is beyond me. The writing is juvenile, terribly sophomoric, there are long passages of stilted dialogue by one southern character with absolutely no contractions and long passages by THE SAME character filled with misused southern slang and contractions. It was written by a gay man in first person from a female main character’s point of view. He doesn’t have a clue. He’s created a bimbo who is supposed to inherit the most powerful witch forces in the South. How this book has nearly 3000 reviews is beyond me.

  2. This is really interesting. As if we don’t have enough to do already with our first line. Now we must make it scream genre, too. Yikes. But I love how you went through and tracked down these first lines. Very clever idea.

    Here’s mine:
    1. C
    2. D
    3. A
    4. H
    5. G
    6. E
    7. B
    8. F

    We’ll see how I do. I’m not optimistic…

    • You got two correct also, but they were a different two than Tim Baker’s. I swear, when I clicked on these books and read their first lines I said, “What?” And they’re all Best Sellers at the top of their game with lots of reviews. I’m going to call this “rule” a “myth”.

      • The first sentence of my published book and the one I’m querying now both suggest genre, but that was dumb luck. I never planned it that way. Now I’ll have to go back to my current WIP and see what I’ve used for a first line in it!

  3. The lesser-known author might make marketing somewhat easier if the genre is clear very early in the Look Inside… The bigger the author’s current following, the less this will matter.

    • I looked at Dean Koontz and was wowed, but Steven King didn’t make it. Both are well known. Not good to rest on your Laurels. I’d buy the Odd Thomas book, the King book? Meh.

  4. I don’t tend to pay much attention to first sentences. Usually it’s trying to hard to catch interest, so I focus more on the first couple of chapters 😀 I mean, most people have read the blurb so they know the genre already!

  5. I started to do this, but then I couldn’t. I just had no idea, which I think shows it’s really not necessary to make the first sentence scream “genre.” I’m not a publisher, and I haven’t published an fiction works, but as a reader, I’m much more interested in reading an interesting story. I don’t care what the genre is. I know some people only read romance novels or only read fantasy or some other genre, but most likely they’d have an idea about the genre from the cover, blurbs, etc. I want to read maybe the first paragraph or page, and then see if I want to know more about the character or situation. If it’s a good story, I don’t care what the genre is. Maybe that’s not entirely true, there are some genres I’m not interested in reading, but mainly I’m concerned about the characters and story–and good writing. Just my two cents. 🙂

    (Also–I’m not certain about the distinctions between some of the genres you listed. And don’t some books cross genres? What about historical fiction that are mysteries, for example?)

    • I read across all genres, but picked these eight just to get examples. Story and writing style have a lot to do with why I’ll buy a book. I have to read the Look Inside now.

  6. OK, a day late, here are my guesses (and, no, I did not look at today’s post before doing this):
    1 F, 2 G, 3 A, 4 H, 5 D, 6 E, 7 C, 8 B

    Now I get to go look at today’s post and see just how wrong I was.

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