Nothing stops traffic like a vicious car crash.
Besides the emergency crews tending to the wounded and police helping to direct traffic, we flock to danger (even tragedy). There is a pull that is undeniable. We cannot turn away from the accident.
We want to see. We want to feel like we can make a difference. We want to give pity to those injured (or even laugh at their foolishness).
If I were to ask you, “What grips you about a book or story first?”
Some would say:
1. The cover of a book (well, we are visual so this is true yet this is like butter crème frosting on a strawberry shortcake or royal icing on African elephant dung if the book is crappy).
2. The back cover (the summary of the story is usually found there and who hasn’t turned to the book cover to read to see if the book is worth their time?).
3. The opening sentence (bingo).
This is what make or break a story. Let’s look at this together on why this is so.
What are opening sentences?
“Vancouver was bustling with crackling energy as Theresa and Tiyana walked toward Amarcord, the fine Italian restaurant. Their friends, Jay and Stephen, had raved about this place for months. The way the boys talked this place up. You would think the establishment had dozen of chefs all cloned after the DNA of Mario Batali. As soon as they walked toward the door, the place look abandoned as if a nuclear bomb dropped. Desolation cried out of its windows. Shadows kissed the walls. The smell of urine burned their noses.” – E.J. Apostrophe
Have you ever seen or heard this famous commercial?
The impressionable line of the advertisement: “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”
Just like Theresa and Tiyana in our story, the first impression of the restaurant given by their friends was a positive one yet when they actually went…well, McDonald’s looked like a better option suddenly.
Stories are the same. As writers, we need to give a first impression that grabs the reader by the throat and forces them to read. If the first impression is flat, your story will be mere vanilla than decadent chocolate.
Opening sentences are the portals to whatever world you want your reader to explore. The gateway that can either draw the reader in like a seductive siren’s song or repel them away like Peruvian Dubia cockroaches to Pantene hair spray.
Why is this important?
Author Kathryn Wilkins said this about opening sentences (particularly the first lines…now she was referring to journals here. The lesson is still significant):
The first line of an entry should be strong and compelling. It should be salient, which means strikingly conspicuous, prominent. It sounds like the word “sail,” and I think of the entry’s first line as a tall ship sailing into a sunlit bay, leading a flotilla of sentences. Like a tall ship, it should be colorful and arouse curiosity. – Kathryn Wilkins, Start Off Strong, Feb 11 2008
Author Steven Goldsberry had this to say:
The opening paragraph, sentence, line, phrase, word, title—the beginning is the most important part of the work. It sets the tone and lets the readers know you’re a commanding writer. – Steven Goldsberry, 17 Writing Secrets, Feb 11 2008
Would you eat a juicy and succulent grass-fed Angus beef hamburger placed on a soft, warm sesame seed hamburger bun and served on a grubby hub cap? No. Neither would I (me? I like mine on trash can lids, thank you very much. Kidding!).
Presentation is everything – even in your writing. In fact, top-selling writers spend the most of their creative energies forming, tweaking, chiseling, and shaving the opening line. Hmm…is that a clue?
Until the opening line is singing and melting hearts like silky voice of Nat King Cole, do not dare cheat your readers. Stop giving in to writing fast food openings and instead give your reader Porter House steak openings that leave them full and satisfied.
Like some examples? Here are three:
- It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. – The Tales of Two Cities
- Call me Ishmael. – Moby Dick
- It was a dark and stormy night.- Paul Clifford
Now, how do we craft a solid opening sentence that like a car crash we cannot turn away? Glad you asked. Follow me.
Tips on creating opening sentences
Here is a stunning blog post from Storyfix.com (my mentor Larry Brooks) on the power of opening sentences. I hope this helps:
Additional articles appear below for those who want to create to opening sentences that grab you.
How about you?
What are some of the best and worst openings to stories or novels that you have read lately?
P.S. Are you bold? Share an opening from one of your stories with us if you dare.