Intern Gediyon offers advice about opening sentences.
In creative writing workshops, instructors discuss setting, plot, dialogue, conflict, description, characterization and all the other things that go into a great story. All these things are important—they wouldn’t be taught if they weren’t—but I looked back on my experiences in writing classes, and I realized one aspect of the story that seemed like it was being neglected: the opening sentence. I may be nit-picking; after all, how important can a few nouns and verbs be compared to the thousands of words that constitute a story?
The answer is very. A great opening sentence will seize the reader’s attention, wipe out whatever they were thinking of before and make the descent into the fictive dream much, much easier. And for the iPhone generation, the opening sentence can make the difference between the reader becoming immersed and the reader putting down the story to update their Facebook status.
So, what exactly goes into a good opener? I asked around, and I got some interesting answers. Some of them didn’t jibe with my personal taste, and some did, but all were intriguing, and I have listed a few of them below (Disclaimer: These are not hard and fast rules. These are the opinions of me and my writer friends):
- An opener needs to raise questions. Nothing is more attention-grabbing than mystery. And the mystery doesn’t have to be outlandish either—everyday mysteries can be just as fascinating. A good example of a sentence that raises questions from the get-go is the opening line of Slicker by Dan Pope: “There are ten grounds for divorce in the state of Connecticut, and according to my mother, my father was guilty of all of them.” This sentence raises three questions in less than thirty words. Is the father really guilty? If he is, why did he do it? If he isn’t, why is the mother lying? We are intrigued, and we want to read on.
- A good opener should introduce conflict. A story has never been written that did not contain a conflict of some sort, and what better place to introduce it than at the start? A good example that caught my friend’s eye recently is the opening of Michael Chabon’s short story “Werewolves in Their Youth.”The story begins, “I had known him as a bulldozer, as a samurai, as an android programmed to kill, as Plastic Man and Titanium Man and Matter-Eater Lad, as a Buick Electra, as a Peterbilt truck, and even, for a week, as the Mackinac Bridge, but it was as a werewolf that Timothy Stokes finally went too far.” In addition to introducing conflict (Timothy Stokes went too far as a werewolf no less), this sentence also tells us indirectly that Timothy is a child with a big imagination. Which brings me to my third point…
- Opening sentences should set the tone for what’s to follow. After reading the above excerpt from “Werewolves in Their Youth.”we have a pretty good idea that Timothy is a child, and the narrator is not. The sentence has a nostalgic, looking-back-on-childhood air to it, and our expectations for the story begin to take shape accordingly. Another scene-setter is the much-quoted beginning of Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher: “During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.” Despite its length, this is still a good sentence because it perfectly communicates the tone of sickly, morbid despair that pervades the story.
The aspects I’ve listed above don’t work in isolation; a good opener should combine scene-setting with conflict creating, question raising with characterization and so on. As a writing teacher once told me, if the sentence isn’t doing several things at once, it’s not doing enough. While that approach might seem daunting, with lots of practice and lots of reading, you can get good at it.