Arguably the most important words in a book are all contained in the opening sentence. But do you know why? Although the title of your book or narrative may initially grab the attention of your potential reader, it is when they flick to the first page and read your opening sentence which will really hook them in. Your opening sentence is the first impression your readers will get of your book/story and will determine whether they want to move on to the next sentence, the next paragraph, the next page…. So, here are some tips on to how to write a good opening for your story.
The opening sentence can be the most difficult to write
Many professional writers don’t attempt to write their opening sentence until they have finished their book or are well on the way to completing it. So why not take a hint from these seasoned and experienced writers and wait until you feel suitably inspired to create a real attention grabber. But don’t expect to get it right first time. Your opening words may end up being the ones you have to revise and edit the most.
Check out what other writers do
Pick out a selection of your favourite books and check out their opening sentences. What makes them effective? What have the writers done to capture your attention and make you want to read on? For example, do they surprise or amuse you, are they shocking or edgy, are they enigmatic or unexpected, are they confiding or romantic? Do they make you curious or do they pose a question?
When you have had a good look and analysed what makes these opening sentences work for you, try to use the same ideas to create your own irresistible opening sentence.
Go for a short and simple opening sentence
Many of the best opening sentences in literature are short and simple. For example:
“Marley was dead to begin with.” A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.” The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis
On the other hand a longer opening sentence can also work
Although some of the best opening sentences are short and simple there are some notable exceptions. For example:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insist on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” A Tale of two Cities by Charles Dickens
Some opening sentence strategies
Start with a satirical yet ubiquitous statement of truth:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin
Be conversational (for example, imagine you are talking to a friend):
“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 crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” Catcher In the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Write an opening sentence which disorients or confuses your readers by suggesting that things are not quite normal and that they are entering an alien world:
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
Write something absurd:
“They say the world is flat and supported on the back of four elephants who themselves stand on the back of a giant turtle”. The Fifth Elephant by Terry Pratchett
Write something absurd and baffling:
“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” 1984 by George Orwell
Try starting with a catchy and humorous opening sentence:
“It was the day my grandmother exploded.” The Crow Road by Iain Banks
“I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.” The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson
“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by CS Lewis
“Take my camel dear,” said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.” The Towers of Trebizond by Rose MacAulay
Start with a question:
“Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.” Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
Now have a go yourself
Now you have picked out some of your favourite books and read their first sentences/openings and had a look at my selection above, consider what makes you want to read on? As you will see some of the best openings are short and succinct and they draw you in because they shock, intrigue, question, surprise, fascinate, inspire, set the scene and so on. Although long opening sentences do work as in the classic opening sentence to A Tale of two Cities, it is probably initially easier as an inexperienced writer to aim for something short and simple.
When you are ready, move to on to Lesson 7 where you will find some tips on how to come up with a good title for your story.