Want to lose readers before you’ve had them? Write a truly weak opening sentence.
Uninspired beginnings suggest that entire books or stories are equally uninspired. If the author doesn’t care enough to make things interesting, why should you be interested in reading it? It’s that simple.
Think about your own experiences with reading. How many times have you picked up a book in a bookstore, read the opening few sentences and decided against purchase based on a truly awful first sentence or two? The rest of the book may well be a masterpiece, but if you can’t get past the first few lines you’ll never know. Beginning sentences are the billboards that get readers interested in the product. Billboards that don’t instantly make you curious and want to know more won’t sell much product. It’s the same with first sentences.
Let’s take a look at some truly grabber first sentences from a few literary classics.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” - Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – George Orwell, 1984 (1949)
“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.” – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
“I am an invisible man.” – Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)
Who wouldn’t want to read more about a guy who steps right up and declares “I am an invisible man?” Who wouldn’t want to know more about a place where clocks are “striking thirteen?” And how can times be both the best and the worst? – Such opening sentences not only grab our attention, they do so in a way that immediately has us begging to know more. And so we continue reading.
I don’t care how well written and gripping your story is, without a wiz-bang opening sentence few readers will read far enough to find out how good the work is. With thousands of new books hitting shelves and eReaders every month, the need for grabber openings has never been greater. Your powerful beginnings are why readers will choose you over other authors.
Take a look at this simple line from one of the stories in “The Best American Short Stories of 2010”; Mariner Press.
“By now you have gotten several letters from me and this will probably be the last”; PS, by Jill McCorkle; The Atlantic.
Although this sentence is simple and straightforward, these 15 words leave readers wanting answers: Who wrote the letter? To whom was it written? Why should the recipient know “by now?” Why were several letters necessary? What was in those letters? And, finally, why might this letter be the last?
Just as with the classic examples mentioned earlier, McCorkle draws readers in with the promise that many questions will be answered, if only we keep reading. And she fulfills that promise.
One of the most common mistakes I’ve seen in much of the fiction I’ve been asked to critique is weak first sentences. More often than not, rather than lead readers in with questions or some interesting revelation, many writers lead in with descriptions of settings or characters.
For example: He was a tall man, more than six feet by most estimates, with a handlebar moustache and spectacles.
While these are all fine details to help readers see this character, there is nothing here that makes us want to know about him. Nothing to make us curious.
However, consider the same story started like this: Lucien would commit murder tonight, and his great height, handlebar moustache and spectacles would each play their part.
Example two leaves us not only startled that a murder would be committed by this character, it gives the character a name, leaves us wondering who he’ll murder and why, and leaves us puzzled as to how his height, moustache and spectacles might play a role? Readers are hooked.
Another element common to work with weak beginnings is that stronger beginnings are almost always buried within later paragraphs. Writers spend much time stage setting with descriptions only to reveal dramatic elements later. In the above example, the story might have started with descriptions of the character followed by details about the area where he lives, and only later would the fact that he’d be murdering someone be revealed. But if readers stop reading at the introductory details they may never get to the murder. You need a billboard right there at the on ramp that makes them slow down and get excited about the journey. Without one, they’ll simply drive on.
I challenge you to revisit some of your past stories and examine their opening sentences. Are they weak? Are there lines later in the story that would make better openings? If your openings are strong, could they be made stronger?
Rather than making your openings just places to start, make it a point to devote a good chunk of time to crafting first sentences that really grab your readers’ attention. After all, no strong openings, no readers.