Writing Beginnings – Opening Sentence

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Gone are the days of slowly oozing out a beginning with frilly descriptions of the skyline, weather (unless it’s dramatic weather!) or lazily droning about a character’s description and backstory. And thankfully so! How very dull.

In today’s world of fiction authors must hook their reader (remember, editors are readers too!) with the first sentence. Some fine examples:

“Quinn had found a box of paperclips in his bottom desk drawer and was just straightening up when the dead woman walked into his office.” – John Lutz, Mr. X

“At the very beginning, she had seen his face and knew he would not let her live.” – Allison Brennan, Speak No Evil

“The demon howled its outrage.” – Raymond Feist, Rides a Dread Legion

“I heard this scary story about you one time,” Marty said, “and I didn’t know whether it was true or not.” – Jeffery Deaver, Shallow Graves

“Laura Adderley leaned a hand against the bathroom stall, clutching the home pregnancy test in her other fist, unable to look.” – Lisa Jackson, Wicked Lies

“If she didn’t have sex with something soon, she would burst out of her skin.” Virginia Kantra, Sea Witch

Each one of these writers opened with a bang, no ABC Nightly Weather Reports here. These opening sentences cause the reader to ask questions, to wonder, to want to know and that is precisely what causes them to pick up your book – or manuscript.

The second thing each of these authors does with their opening sentence is to show that something is definitely awry – none of these are every day events.

It’s an unfortunate fact that most editors and agents won’t read past the first few pages if they’re not already hooked. Some read only the first paragraph. Some only the first line. Yes. So your opening sentence is the most crucial sentence in your entire story. It’s worth every moment you polish and turn it, every bead of sweat and every drop of blood you pour into it, for without a great opening –

“Unless you grab our attention immediately, your book has no chance.” – Jodie Rhodes, Jodie Rhodes Literary Agency

“Never ever start with weather, dreams, setup, or a passive scene that takes the reader nowhere.” – Julie Castiglia, Castiglia Literary Agency

Thankfully, this doesn’t mean we as writers need to have the perfect beginning when we start our rough drafts. Lain and I have learned to write the story through entirely in rough draft and only then, once the ending is solidified, can we be certain that not only does our story start at the right spot but that our opening line fits.

That said, a good 80% of our time is spent on the Beginning and one would think that it would even out after it’s gone through publisher edits but not so. Even in the final editing process before release most of our edits are in the first through third chapters.

When honing your opening it helps to keep these questions in mind:

Does it open with an interesting situation?

Does it open with character?

Does it give the reader a sense that something is wrong? Amiss? About to rock the character’s world?

Does it raise questions?

What questions? – note here, the questions ought to relate directly to the character and story and meld with your ending (more on that later), not will he eat his pizza – unless, the pizza is poisoned then go for it!

Does my story follow through on the promises I make to the reader with this opening?

Write on!

More on Beginnings throughout this week and May!

One Comment

  1. Leonard Marks
    June 27, 2012

    great post