Opening sentences

Tue, Jun 23 2015 11:14pm IST 1
Suzi
Suzi
15 Posts
Hi everyone! I was just wondering if any one has any specific techniques to choosing your opening lines. I really struggle with that first sentence to the point where I either start the story part way through and agonise over the beginning later or I end up writing something too descriptive, or vague or irrelevant making readers struggle to find a hook. Does any one else have this issue or is any one really good with openers in which case what's your secret?
Wed, Jun 24 2015 12:10am IST 2
Mashie Niblick
Mashie Niblick
1045 Posts
You like the bell jar, which has one of the best opening lines ever: It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.

Why is it so good?

Well, who are the Rosenburgs? Why the word queer? The doubling of summer tells us it's going to be poetic. And the last bit draws us straight into her voice and POV. All in a single sentence. It engages the reader's curiosity three times in a row.

I'd look at which opening lines of books you like work best, and analyse why...what is the author making you, the reader, do? I think if you (we) understand this better we'll do it better.

Good luck.

Mash
Wed, Jun 24 2015 12:24am IST 3
Suzi
Suzi
15 Posts
Very true. I think I have to be hooked straight away as a reader so it's probably why I get hung up on it as a writer. That's good advice. Thank you.
Wed, Jun 24 2015 12:32am IST 4
Mashie Niblick
Mashie Niblick
1045 Posts
It's definitely important, but can be sorted at any time. It may just come to you! I think it's common to rewrite the opening sentence, paragraph and chapter several times, after the book is drafted.
Wed, Jun 24 2015 06:28am IST 5
RedRuth
RedRuth
383 Posts

What Mashie said.

Also, especially for a short story (and possibly the novel) you may consider compressing the ‘theme’ of your story into those first few sentences.

Wed, Jun 24 2015 06:55am IST 6
FergC
FergC
1279 Posts
The opening sentence is always tough. Not because it's the first one you write – you almost certainly will not keep the first sentence you write of a new work in place, as is, all the way through to the final draft – but because it's the one that your reader will use to 'judge' the rest of the book. I got that 'wake up call' when some one said in a critique on a first chapter, 'and that's where I'd put the book back on the shelf and start looking for something else.' It was tough to hear but dead right. Your 'first' sentence will probably be among the last things you write because only when you've done a huge amount of leg work will you be able to judge correctly how you want to draw the reader in (the hook). So how does a hook work? Mashie's already described a brilliant example (Coincidentally, I picked The Ball Jar of the shelf in my local book store only last week and was impressed enough by the first sentence to flick through the first dozen pages on the spot).
The main point is you get the reader to ask interesting questions about the book. Get them wondering what's really happening here. They must relate to the core of your book too. No back-story hooks. Crime writers say 'Body on the first page,' which means main plot, and act which needs resolution (which only reading your book will provide) and a whole mountain of 'W' words.
But my main advice is 'don't expect write your first sentence at the out set.'


Wed, Jun 24 2015 10:51am IST 7
EmmaD
EmmaD
3327 Posts
Two thoughts, in haste:

1) think about what the opening of the book promises, as Andrew Stanton puts it in his TED talk. Link towards the end of this post:


2) think about what sweets the opening sentence drops to lure us onwards: what potent words you use, what friction you set up between them. Some thoughts here:


Then write your first shot at such a sentence, and move on to the rest of the book. As Fergus says, you may well need to re-write it totally, either because you realise it could be better, or because you realise you need to start the story in a different place.

And this is about openings in general, which might help:

Wed, Jun 24 2015 01:23pm IST 8
Suzi
Suzi
15 Posts
Thank you for all the advice and the links. That's really helpful. I think Fergus hit the nail on the head with the re-write comment. I put too much emphasis on this too early on and this stops me before I've even started! I'll just write the first thing that comes into my head now and re-write (and cringe) later.
Wed, Jun 24 2015 02:35pm IST 9
FergC
FergC
1279 Posts
If this is your first time writing something of any length then you'll need to get used to the idea of re-writing and even ditching completely huge amounts of text (and we're talking about tens of thousands of words here). Don't worry, it's something nearly all authors do.
I'm really glad you're taking this philosophically.
But for now, write. Write for weeks, pages and pages. Let the creative juices flow. This will get the story out on paper. After that, you'll have all the time you need to edit, check plot points, tighten up corners, eliminate waffle, and of course sculpt that all important first sentence!
Cheers, F.
Sat, Jul 4 2015 12:57pm IST 10
K.S. Crooks
K.S. Crooks
40 Posts
It may help to think of what makes your characters interesting and use that to draw in the reader. Whatever makes them stand out could be what you use to peak curiosity. At the same time remember that most people don't remember the first sentence of the books they read. The only two that I remember are "Call me Ishmael." and "Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy." I tend not to judge a book by the first sentence. By the first chapter is another story.
Thu, Aug 13 2015 01:29pm IST 11
KalBashir.com
KalBashir.com
2 Posts
Personally, I try to infuse the first sentence with theme, which automatically gives it meaning.
Tue, Apr 4 2017 09:59pm IST 12
A.R. Carpenter
A.R. Carpenter
44 Posts
You like the bell jar, which has one of the best opening lines ever: It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.

Why is it so good?

Well, who are the Rosenburgs? Why the word queer? The doubling of summer tells us it's going to be poetic. And the last bit draws us straight into her voice and POV. All in a single sentence. It engages the reader's curiosity three times in a row.

I'd look at which opening lines of books you like work best, and analyse why...what is the author making you, the reader, do? I think if you (we) understand this better we'll do it better.

Good luck.

Mash

Most people in the US would know who the Rosenbergs were (a husband and wife working in the Manhattan project while spying for the USSR) and when they were electrocuted, namely June 1953, so this gives a quick statement of the setting.

Ian Fleming was a master at the opening line, I've found.

Tue, Apr 4 2017 11:04pm IST 13
Hilly
Hilly
125 Posts
Room by Emma Donoghue.

Today I'm five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I'm changed to five, abracadabra.

What a story and what a voice.

I'm just like everyone else. You begin your book, write over a hundred thousand words, pare it down and eventually start your book at chapter 3, as the first 2 chapters were all back-story and bored the pants off even you. (Still learning that lesson)
Then have headaches over that first line or two.
Thu, Apr 20 2017 11:06am IST 14
Everlasting
Everlasting
23 Posts
That first sentence can sometimes be a tough one to get over, but personally I just write anything to get the ball rolling. Afterall, you could complete the entire story, long or short, and make that opening sentence the very last thing that you alter, so you have all the time that you could wish for to perfect it if you so wish :)
Sun, Apr 23 2017 12:14pm IST 15
MosquitoFB6
MosquitoFB6
120 Posts
I often start with dialogue. I find it helps to drop the reader straight in with the characters. May not be everyone's choice, but for me it's a useful way to introduce the world and the people at the same time.
Sun, Apr 23 2017 04:16pm IST 16
danielaubrey13
danielaubrey13
210 Posts
Hi,
This is an article by Stephen King talking about opening lines and voice, which is a fascinating insight. Basically, the two go hand-in-hand I think (like in the example Hilly gave above):

https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/07/why-stephen-king-spends-months-and-even-years-writing-opening-sentences/278043/

I think the best opening lines show the voice, tell you where you are and get you asking why the hell you're there, and dare you to put the book back on the shelf without finding out more! I also agree with the posts here that say you can probably put too much pressure on yourself to get it perfect. Not only will the first line get re-written, but the whole start of your book probably will too! You may find you haven't started in the right place, in which case getting the opening line right will be near impossible. :-)
Mon, Apr 24 2017 05:18am IST 17
Seagreen
Seagreen
1973 Posts
Thanks for the link!
Mon, Apr 24 2017 08:49am IST 18
Joyful
Joyful
45 Posts
Dear All He was called fifteen minutes after his scheduled appointment. Anne stood immediately. Knowing she would be hurt he gently stroked her shoulder, " I would prefer to go in alone. It's a bit of a 'man' thing," he whispered. "I'd prefer to tell you afterwards." Now I know this is cheating and not one sentence but this is my opening so I would love to know what all of you think. Would you become interested? What is he there for? Do you want to know? Three years ago I was so confident BUT now we've all done this Workshop we all without exception have learned it is NOT that easy! What we feel is good enough has been checked and critiqued by two extremely word perfect tutors. I certainly never realised adverbs were a 'no no' in professional writing so I will need to stop my habit of popping them in so often! Joyful
Mon, Apr 24 2017 10:30am IST 19
A.R. Carpenter
A.R. Carpenter
44 Posts
Can't say that overly strikes me personally, but others may disagree.
Mon, Apr 24 2017 11:17am IST 20
Kate
Kate
640 Posts
I loved the SE course Joyful - but yes, it does show us just how much we don't know. Still, better to have realised than continuing to blunder along in the dark. Actually still in the dark, but there's a spot of light ahead - pity it keeps moving.
Wondering why your character was there was probably the third thing I thought, followed by, ooh, man thing, not sure I want to know.
The first thing that struck me was a bit of confusion. You jumped from 'he' in your first sentence to 'Anne' in your second. Moving character threw me. Then the third sentence was back in 'he' explaining what was going on. The second thought was did his partner seriously come all the way to the doctors without asking why they were going?
The first problem might be solved by 'Anne stood immediately but he....' Though now I'm thinking she stands first so if he's still sitting how can he stroke her shoulder. That's probably over thinking, but still?
And the gently adverb. Stroking already has the connutation of soothing and gentle so 'gently' is redundant.
'Knowing she would be hurt....' has that filtering that distances us from the character. Could you put us more in his head. 'This would hurt her.' But you need to have firmly established we're in his head to do that. (so it's important to fix that character jump in the second sentence.)
You also use prefer twice.
So not grabbing me at the moment.
One possibilty might be to roll this forward 30 seconds. Have your character look back from the doctors door with the double emotional impact of what would the doctor say combined with the guilt of hurting her.
All this from your opening sentences!
Look forward to maybe seeing how you rework.
Hope that helps and doesn't spiral you out of control. Others may well have different thoughts. :)
Mon, Apr 24 2017 11:54am IST 21
Debi
Debi
7002 Posts
Hi Joy - there's still a week left on the course. Do you want this to be your week 6 question? If so, you'll need to post it in the group.
Mon, Apr 24 2017 01:19pm IST 22
Joyful
Joyful
45 Posts
Dear Debi Wow, what a lot of good criticism already from Kate! I am thrilled and amazed how differently we all feel but then it's obvious. otherwise we'd all be reading the same books! Currently reading Lionel Shriver's The Mandibles guessing that for many people this would go back on the shelf. Having read Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand, I smile and carry on reading because the concept/plot is so close to Ayn's story of America facing bancrupcy and total disaray. Haven't decided on my wk 6 question as there are so many pushing for attention. And I am taking note that when going through m/s I must double check the time/dates. Many thanks for your beady eye! Joy
Mon, Apr 24 2017 03:23pm IST 23
Seagreen
Seagreen
1973 Posts
Joy - my first thoughts (and I suspect they are not what you intended) were:
What relevance did the lateness of the appointment hold?
Why did he take Anne if he expected to go in alone?

I do think your opening sentence could be stronger. Is it possible for you to pin down what it is you want the reader to know or feel about that exact moment?

Just started reading an Ursula Le Guin novel. Her opening line?
Imagine darkness.
Mon, Apr 24 2017 03:45pm IST 24
Catasshe
Catasshe
506 Posts
'If there's one thing I've learnt in the past 15 years, it's this; that murder really is no big deal.'
First line of 'Gentlemen and Players' by Joanne Harris that I just started reading last night!!

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