Last month we covered different ways to open a novel or short story, focusing on first chapters and preliminary paragraphs. Now let’s move on to the beginning of the beginning, your story’s first sentence, your first opportunity to hook readers.
Writer’s Digest guest blogger, Jacob M. Appel (January 9, 2014), offers seven different approaches to crafting a killer first sentence:
- State an eternal principle.
Think of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”); Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way; Jane Hamilton’s The Book of Ruth (“What it begins with, I know finally, is the kernel of meanness in people’s hearts.”). It goes without saying that the content must confirm the proposed principle.
- Convey a simple fact.
The entire weight of the narrative can be conveyed in a single statement, as in, “I had a farm in Africa” (Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa); “It was a pleasure to burn” (Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451); “I am an invisible man” (Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man). No fireworks here, just the facts.
- Combine paired facts.
Sometimes two facts combined are more powerful than either one alone. Consider the opening line of Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter: “In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.” A town with two mutes is not necessarily compelling, says Appel, nor are two inseparable men. But a town with two inseparable mutes grabs our interest.
- Load a simple fact with significance.
In Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie buries the key to solving the crime in the first sentence: “It was five o’clock on a cold winter’s morning in Syria.” And we find the key to the heroine’s psyche in the opening of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind: “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm.”
- Introduce voice.
Vladimir Nabokov’s famous opening—“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins”—immediately conveys the author’s distinctive style even as it characterizes his protagonist. Anthony Burgess opens A Clockwork Orange—“What’s it going to be then, eh?”—with the ominous voice that will accompany the reader throughout the text. In a 2013 interview with Joe Fassler in The Atlantic, Stephen King supports the idea that “voice achieves an intimate connection, a bond much stronger than the kind forged, intellectually, through crafted writing.”
- Establish mood.
Contextual information can often color our understanding of the coming narrative. Sylvia Plath’s opening to The Bell Jar—“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York”—sets an ominous tone for what follows although the Rosenbergs have nothing to do with the novel’s content.
- Tell it like it is.
Sometimes announcing that you’re going to tell a story is the best way to begin. J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye takes this approach: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap.” An opening hook can be as straightforward as this first sentence in Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler: “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler” (yes, really it really starts this way).
Obviously, a lot of thought has gone into the crafting of effective openings. In 2013, blog Gawker writer Jason Parham concluded that the best openings have different functions. Based on genre, they might be called on to amuse, to frighten, to mystify, etc. The best say, “Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”
What follows are only a few of the best fiction openings as compiled by Parham and the Gawker staff. I have culled from their long list and eliminated duplicates from above, including the McCullers, Plath, Tolstoy and Austen openers. Take note of the stark contrasts in the length and complexity of the following sentences:
I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day of January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.
—Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex
They shoot the white girl first.
—Toni Morrison, Paradise
Don’t look for dignity in public bathrooms.
—Victor LaValle, Big Machine
I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up their devil doll stool pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper I throw away at Washington Square Station.
—William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch
The magician’s underwear has just been found in a cardboard suitcase floating in a stagnant pond on the outskirts of Miami.
—Tom Robbins, Another Roadside Attraction
You better not never tell nobody but God.
—Alice Walker, The Color Purple
See the child.
—Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian
Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon, with an 8-ball of coke in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat.
—Dennis Lehane, “Until Gwen”
An ice storm, following seven days of snow; the vast fields and drifts of snow turning to sheets of glazed ice that shine and shimmer blue in the moonlight, as if the color is being fabricated not by the bending and absorption of light but by some chemical reaction within the glossy ice; as if the source of all blueness lies somewhere up here in the north—the core of it beneath one of these frozen fields; as if blue is a thing that emerges, in some parts of the world, from the soil itself, after the sun goes down.
—Rick Bass, “The Hermit’s Story”
Her father would say years later that she had dreamed that part of it, that she had never gone out through the kitchen window at two or three in the morning to visit the birds.
—Edward P. Jones, “The Girl Who Raised Pigeons”
A cradle won’t hold my baby.
—Daniel Woodrell, “Uncle”
Unlike the typical bluesy earthy folksy denim-overalls noble-in-the-face-of-cracker-racism aw shucks Pulitzer-Prize-winning protagonist mojo magic black man, I am not the seventh son of the seventh son of the seventh son.
—Paul Beatty, The White Boy Shuffle
Since it’s Sunday and it’s stopped raining, I think I’ll take a bouquet of roses to my grave.
—Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “Someone Has Been Disarranging These Roses”
Here is a weird one for you.
—David Foster Wallace, “Signifying Nothing”
And that ends my treatment of beginnings.