Tuesday, July 03, 2012

The Power of Opening Sentences

That first sentence can put your readers on high alert (in a positive - or negative - way).

It doesn't have to split the heavens, but it should be enough to pique a reader's interest and cause him or her to want to continue reading. If the first sentence, and especially that first paragraph, is flat, lifeless, dull, and boring, then your readers are going to expect more of the same. And they'll usually find what they're looking for. Even if the rest of the chapter or story picks up steam, those opening lines have made their first impression, for good or for ill.

At the novel writing workshop I'm attending this summer, we talked about some opening lines that are now considered classics. For example, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice begins with: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. Or George Orwell's 1984: It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

The "trick" is to introduce a unique idea or startling phrase or concept without being cutesy or gimmicky. Something ordinary, but slightly off. Something that says, "Read me to find out the answer!"

And since this is my blog, allow me to share my first paragraph to a crime/detective story I'm writing. Tell me what you think: Sirens screamed past the abandoned warehouse where I sat with close to fifty grand spilling out of my canvas bag. It wasn’t much as far as these types of jobs go, but it just might be enough to get me killed.

A quick google search can produce a number of sites with a "best of" list. Some great first sentences are here and a discussion of opening paragraphs is hereOf course, during this 4th of July week, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention, "We the people..." as a great opening line! What are some of your favorite attention grabbing, high alert story openers?


  1. I love a great opening line, but I find few I consider truly "great," though a number that are good.

    With my opening lines, I try to build a mystery of sorts. I try to leave the reader with questions, wanting to know more. Do I always succeed? Only the readers know. But I try.

  2. Good personal example, Ty. My thoughts exactly. And if the first sentence isn't an instant classic, that's fine - that first paragraph or two really sets the tone for what follows.

    Good discussion at Mike Duran's blog right now about whether those opening chapters (often downloaded as free samples for the kindle) are "top heavy" in that they're well written - but then rest of the novel slacks off in craft and urgency. Do you think that's a challenge?

  3. Hmm, it depends. There are multiple factors.

    When I write one of my epic fantasy novels, because I've already written a number in the series, I don't feel like I suffer from that "top heavy" syndrome. I'm sort of already in tune with the flow, so to speak.

    On the other hand, when I'm starting a stand-alone novel or similar, I often feel like my first few chapters are reaching for my "voice" for that piece, for lack of a better word. In those instances, I tend to feel my later chapters are better than the early ones.

    On the other hand, yet again, I have read a number of novels I felt were stronger in the beginning before wimpering off. I admit that I think I'm even guilty of it in at least one of my own early novels. My guess would be such novels came about this way because the writer was trying to become traditionally published, thus spent more time and work on the early chapters in hopes of impressing the editors/publishers. Also, those beginning chapters being ... well, at the beginning ... it's somewhat natural for them to get more of a look than later chapters; the writer is likely to see them more often whenever he or her opens the computer file, thumbs through the pages, etc.

  4. Very good, thanks for the insight.

  5. Short stories, in particular, have to grab us with those opening lines. With novels, I don't mind a slow burn -- but you're right: there's got to be something that catches our attention right off. In your opener, you've established the scene and the conflict, and we want to know if this guy/girl's going to die. Kind of like rubber-necking on the freeway when there's been an accident...

  6. First sentences and paragraphs are very important and a fun challenge for me. Here's a really good one from Charles Williams' "War in Heaven":

    "The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no one in the room but the corpse."

    Love that one!

  7. Thanks, Milo - yeah, novels can start a little slower as long as the premise is there. And Stoney, love that opening line - I've read 4 of his novels - I think there are 6 total, right? Many Dimensions and Descent into Hell are excellent, as is War in Heaven.


Keep it clean and positive. (And sorry about the word verification, but the spmb*ts are out in full force!)