How to write an opening sentence

How to write an opening sentence - by Kaz Thomas

Not long ago, I found a blog post with practical advice on writing an opening sentence. When it comes to writing, putting down the opening sentence is one of my biggest challenges (Not finding ideas to write about, which I have too many of and are sometimes totally uninteresting or absurd!). IMHO, the first sentence is key in effective writing and the best openers are bipolar in nature: Fluidly transparent, yet fetching. It catches your attention, but allows the story to grip you, but without shifting your mind too far.

In the post mentioned at the top, the author brings in some patterns he’s observed in other writer’s first sentences, and I thought I would share a selection of interesting first sentences from my kindle’s recently read. Maybe I’ll find something interesting.

“Tonight we’re going to show you eight silent ways to kill a man.” - Forever War by Joe Haldeman

“Beyond the Indian hamlet, upon a forlorn strand, I happened on a trail of recent footprints” - Cloud Atlas by David Stephen Mitchell

“The Deliverator belongs to an elite order, a hallowed subcategory. He’s got esprit up to here.” - Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

“In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul.” - Dune by Frank Herbert

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.” - Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

“Mother died today.” - The Stranger by Albert Camus

For me, the most interesting part of each of these first sentences is how quickly they convey the voice of the author throughout the rest of the novel. In the same way one instantly recognizes a face at a glance, the pattern of letters brings to life the entire book that lies ahead. Collecting these sentences has reminded me why I enjoy each of these books.

The conclusion to this is that every first sentence that you write down should be seen as a representation of yourself, your voice, and should plant yourself in a distinct direction. I just can’t imagine any of the books above having a flimsy entrance like “Not long ago” or “Most people…”.

Ah, and if you’re interested in the tips mentioned in the linked blog post, here they are as written by Kaz Thomas:

  • Simply tell the reader what the subject is.
  • Make a blunt statement.
  • Cite a statistic.
  • Tell a first-person anecdote that’s relevant to the subject.
  • Tell a third-person anecdote.
  • Put up a straw man, then knock it down.
  • Summarize a current state of affairs (or the conventional wisdom), then tell what’s changed.
  • Summarize previous research, then tell what new research has found.
  • Involve the reader in a bit of conjecture.
  • Start with a quotation from a famous figure. (But beware of triteness.)
  • Commit an egregious exaggeration. Then explain what the (less extreme) reality is.