Opening Sentences

Have you decided to start a story and don’t really know where to begin? I’ve done the same before, and I’m sure plenty of other writers have too. Beginnings just aren’t always what we begin with. Most of my stories begin as an idea for a character, my thoughts along the lines of “I’m going to write a story about a girl who…”

But a story’s beginning is important for several good reasons. The beginning of a good story introduces protagonists, gets the plot rolling, offers reason for the story to continue. Moreover, the beginning of a story must draw the readers in – make them want to read the story. Drawing the readers into a story begins with the opening sentence.

When people browse around bookstores, they glance over book covers for mere seconds. If they pick up the book to read the blurb at the back, it only adds a couple more seconds to the average time they might spend on that book. With the plethora of books out there, combined with relatively short attention spans, it seems hard enough to get a reader to look at the beginning of the story. But let’s be optimistic and say a reader opens up to the beginning of your hypothetical novel…

Consider the first sentence your “hook.” You must “hook” the reader with a sentence that is creative, imaginative, attention-grabbing, and that indicates what is to come in the opening paragraph, in the opening chapter, in the story as a whole. Sounds like so much to pack into one sentence, but it’s not as hard as it seems. Try this: after writing your opening sentence, put yourself in the reader’s shoes and ask these questions:

  • Does the sentence make you curious about the story?
  • Does the sentence make you imagine what the story may be about?
  • Does the sentence make you want to read further?
  • What does the sentence indicate may happen in the rest of the paragraph? In the rest of the chapter?

If the answers to any of these questions are not what you desire, then evaluate what the sentence, and subsequently the paragraph, is missing. To go with a slightly silly, but simple example, you can start with a sentence that reads:

Once upon a time, there lived a princess.

So it does give very little indication of what’s to come, and it leaves too much room to imagine what the story will be, but not only is it unoriginal, do you really want to know what’s up with the princess?

On the other hand, maybe the sentence reads: Princess Abigail glanced over her shoulder and breathed a sigh as she silently closed the gate.

Now we have a protagonist who seems to be cautious and secretive. We have some idea of who this character is based simply on the title given to her. We may also imagine she is trying to escape someone, or run away, and we might be curious as to why.

My last bit of advice on opening sentences: start your story and don’t worry too much about the opening. First set up the characters, plot, and everything a story’s beginning should do, then go back and evaluate your first sentence and the subsequent paragraph with fresh eyes.

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