Seven things about opening sentences

Opening sentences to stories! I can just re-write, re-write and re-write the goddamn things until I go mad. All the while imagining publishers rolling their eyes and tossing the manuscript, written in rivers of my blood, sweat and tears, onto their reject pile. Or, even if you’re lucky enough to have a book published, readers wedging your slaved-over work back onto a bookstore shelf. The thousands of other sentences after that first sentence remaining unread, perhaps for all of time. Opening sentences are such annoyingly important things.

It reminds me a little of something I read a while ago about how on Spotify it’s only after the first 30 seconds of a pop song that an artist gets their teeny weeny royalty. Did you know that? The behaviour even has a name: the shit’n’click habit – deciding something is shit within the first few seconds and clicking on to the next song … and the next … and the next…

Anyway, back to opening sentences. Here are my seven things I reckon are worth thinking about.

  1. The first sentence has to indicate something about what’s to come in the story. That is, set up expectations and raise questions in the reader’s mind, compelling them to want to reader on. What’s this all about, then? I think I’ll sit down and read on to find out.
  2. The first sentence should suggest the genre of the book.
  3. If it’s written in the first person, the first sentence ought to evoke the character of the protagonist.
  4. It should suggest setting.
  5. It should suggest themes. Growing up, death, life, survival against all odds… Or in the case of Jane Austen, romance, then more romance, then yet more romance… (She really writes about so much more.)
  6. And more than anything else, an opening sentence needs to grab the attention. If you haven’t got this, nothing else matters really.
  7. I don’t know why I said seven? I must have had seven in my head when I began this, but now I can only recall six. Sorry about that! But that’s one less for you to read and think about.

I’m sure there are plenty of other worthy points clever writers have come up with about opening sentences, but these are the ones I’ve come up with off the top of my head, based on stuff I’ve read in the past most likely.

On to something way more fun. Ten opening sentences I happen to like and hope you just might too (whether or not they do any of the above, I’ll let you decide)…

  1. 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. (Catcher in the Rye, JD Sallinger.)
  2. Then there was the bad weather. (Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway.)
  3. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” (1984, George Orwell.)
  4. “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, Jane Austen.)
  5. When Mr Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton. (The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien.)
  6. Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person. (Back When We Were Grownups, Anne Tyler.)
  7. There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis.)
  8. The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. (The Go-Between, L. P. Hartley.)
  9. Once upon a time in the middle of winter, when the flakes of snow were falling like feathers from the sky, a queen sat sewing at a window framed in black ebony. (Snow-white and the Seven Dwarfs, Brothers Grimm.)
  10. Call me Ishmael. (Moby Dick, Herman Melville. The most famous opening line of all. Three wee words.)
  11. It happened this way. (Monsignor Quixote, Graham Greene. …Ah, there you go, an extra one is on this list.)

As I like to, I’ll leave you with some photos. I had also hoped to share with you my cut-up reworking of Queens’ Bohemian Rhapsody, but that doesn’t seem to be working out just yet. Perhaps I’ll share that with you some other time. Meanwhile, I have seven shots I took of local art while out and about in my local neighbourhood.