Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Building Opening Sentences - Something appealing/Something appalling

Tell the audience what's going to happen - that was the advice of choreographer Jerome Robbins to Stephen Sondheim about how to open "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." The result was the wonderful, fun song "Comedy Tonight."

When I saw this in a bio of Robbins broadcast this weekend (and I am paraphrasing since I don't have access to the original), I couldn't help but thing of how Thackeray and other novelists of his time would begin chapters with spoilers like "In Which Miss Sharp and Miss Sedley Prepare to Open the Campaign." I've written in the past about how titles and subtitles (including "In which" beginnings) can launch writers into their drafts. It's also possible to construct first sentences (for books, chapters, and scenes) that can get the juices flowing.

Many writers freeze when the get to first sentences because there is so much pressure to set the scene, create a great hook, and introduce the character perfectly. If such a sentence comes to you, fine. If not, that means you're human. Get to work putting the story down and worry about the perfect opening sentence when you are rewriting you work. Here are five approaches:
  1. Call me Ishmael. (Moby-Dick) - Write down something the character says. If you can get a character talking, he or she is likely to keep talking for a full scene. Take advantage of that.
  2. 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) - Start with a premise, your thesis (if you know it). Most of us had to do this is school so the words that follow, the proofs, should come easily. This approach works well if you have something to say.
  3. Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested. (The Trial) - Begin with the protagonist's problem. Then move on to what it means to him or her. What might be done to solve it.
  4. This is the saddest story I have ever heard. (The Good Soldier) - Make a promise to the reader. Make it as big as you dare. And then try to fulfill it.
  5. It was a pleasure to burn. (Fahrenheit 451) - Start with a sentence that is charged with emotion. If you have a visceral reaction to it, you can ride that emotion through the sentences that follow it. Once you establish an emotion, you can turn it, for even more fun.
Now, any of these approaches might give you exactly right sentence or one that would never work. It doesn't matter if it gets you started. Since getting started seems to be the bane of most writers, that's a good thing. You can find 100 opening sentences on infoplease.

If all of these leave you scratching your head, try answering these versions of the journalists' questions.
  • When and where does the scene take place?
  • Who is this scene about?
  • What happened to him or her?
  • How did it happen?
  • Why should I (the reader) care?
Be specific and clear. And, again don't worry if you need to change your answers later on. Just get started.

Are you bedeviled about how to begin? How do you construct your opening sentences?


  1. When I begin something, I try to picture my opening scene as a movie. My first words are me describing what flashed in my head, full color, in stereo. They are usually pretty awful, but sometimes not. And the important thing is that it just gets me into the story. I can always go back to fix it. More often than not, the words are dialogue, because that is what comes easiest to me when writing. I hear the words in my mind, and then the "picture" comes after. An important thing to remember is that the end reader won't see your first words! No one ever has to know how bad they were ;).

    Something for everyone, a comedy tonight!

  2. Those intense visuals are wonderful. A read a comment by a writer recently who said he would get images, sounds, textures, and tastes so intense that the real work was sorting it all out in a way that would not overcome the reader.

    Imagination can be a great help, if we pay attention. My mind throws out titles and opening sentences to things that don't (and may never) exist on a regular basis. I collect these and go back to them at times. Sometimes, they've kicked off a new story.

    It is a great consolation that no one will see the first drafts. I think Stephen King calls this "writing with the door closed," and it really provides freedom to a writer.

    Thanks for your comment, Melanie.