The start to a story is what draws the reader in, it’s what sets the stage for everything to come.
And, writers put a lot of pressure on themselves regarding the first line of a story. I don’t know if it was always this way, but in our fast-paced world there is an expectation that writers must hook readers with just one sentence.
Every author dreams of crafting an opening line that will achieve the iconic recognition of “Call me Ishmael,” or the staying power of “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth …”. In writing, as in relationships and business, initial reactions matter. You don’t get a second chance.
The task of writing a catchy first sentence can paralyze even the most acclaimed writers. Stephen King admitted that he can spend months, or even years, writing the opening lines for a new book.
An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story.
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1. The novel “Nervous Conditions” by Tsitsi Dangarembga starts with :
- I was not sorry when my brother died.
That first sentence creates drama because it instantly raises two compelling questions in readers’ minds: Why did the brother die? And why was the author not sorry? A reader will read on because he/she wants to find out the answers to these two questions.
2. “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger starts:
- 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, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
This famous opening line is 63 words long.
When it comes to first sentences, they are only as popular as the rest of the book, and brevity alone will not make a first sentence great. Our literary heroes may write lengthy first sentences but when writing for the web, we need to remember our readers. They’re not curled up on a comfy sofa with a book and a glass of Rioja. They’re hurrying across the web, searching for interesting articles to read and share. Few have the patience to start reading a block of text!
3. Take your cue from Toni Morrison, the master of short first sentences. This one is from “Tar Baby:”
- He believed he was safe.
4. From “Paradise:”
- They shoot the white girl first.
5. From “God Help the Child:”
- It’s not my fault.
Each of these sentences makes you curious to read on.
Ridiculed opening lines:
The book “Paul Clifford” by Edward Bulwer-Lytton has one of the most ridiculed opening lines ever:
- It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets, rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
Not only is that sentence long; its worst crime is that nothing happens. Nothing grabs attention. Nothing makes me curious. It’s simply a description of the weather.
A magic opening-line doesn’t exist
So, there is no need to anxiously search for it. Instead, remember your reader, hurrying across the web. He’s feeling restless. He’s impatient because he’s been distracted by too many blog posts, and not finding what he is looking for.
Make him read your first sentence, then the next.
A good writer draws a reader in, and doesn’t let him go until the last word.
“Linda has published sixteen books. She blogs about the publishing world, posts useful tips on the challenges a writer faces, including marketing and promoting your work, how to build your online platform, how to get reviews and how to self-publish.”