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. And while I do, I can’t help imagining publishers flicking their eyes over my painfully wrought-out first sentence, it not immediately grabbing them for whatever reason, and then dropping the whole manuscript, written with blood, sweat and tears, onto the reject pile. And the thousands of other sentences after that first sentence remaining unread. Sigh. Opening sentences, they are such goddamn important things.

It’s a little like the plight of the pop song in today’s world. On Spotify, the first 30 seconds are critical. Payment doesn’t kick in until after that. Some call this the shit’n’click surfing habit: deciding something is shit within the first few seconds and clicking on to the next song … and the next… and the next…

Opening sentences are hard to write because so much is expected from them. Here are my seven things an opening sentence has to try to do.

  1. The first sentence has to indicate what’s to come in the story. That is, set up all kinds of expectations and raise questions in the reader’s mind, compelling them to want to reader on. What’s this all about? I think I’ll sit down and read on to find out.
  2. The first sentence should suggest the genre of the book.
  3. As it’s written in the first person, the first sentence ought to evoke the character of the protagonist (particularly if the story is entirely written from that point of view).
  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 should be captivating enough to grab your attention.

These are just off the top of my head, based on stuff I’ve read in the past. I’m sure there are plenty of other things.

Onto to something nicer. Ten opening sentences I like. I’ll let you decide if they’re doing any or all of the things I’ve listed above…

  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. Today I woke from a thousand-year-old dream and found I was still a boy of 12 going on 13. (Do e-Mice Dream of Electric Running Wheels? This isn’t really one. I just made it up right this second. Sorry! But I kind of like it. Maybe I’ll write the rest of it one day.)
  10. Call me Ishmael. (Moby Dick, Herman Melville. The most famous opening line of all. Three words.)

As always, I want to leave you with some photos. I had also hoped to share with you my cut-up reworking of Queens’ Bohemian Rhapsody, but I’m still working on that. 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.

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