A Stellar Opening Sentence

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(image: Msparrie, Photobucket)

Once upon a time, in a far away land, there lived a very sad fairy princess.


I’ve accepted the painful truth. I’ve pretty much ruined reading for most of my gal pals. Eventually they bounce back, but each of them has admitted that after listening to me ramble on about the elements of great writing they began analyzing and overthinking the writing, which basically prevents them from getting into the story. It happened to me and it lasted for months! I scrutinized every sentence, noting the overuse of pronouns, adverbs, and passive verbs. I lost my ability to just enjoy reading. Luckily, I too got my reading mojo back… eventually.

Nothing proves this truer than my rantings on the opening scene. We all agree that we hate novels that take a while to get into. Too much setting, too much character description, and not enough action or dialogue. Of course, each author writes what he or she likes, and you can either embrace his or her style or not.

However, I don’t think anyone would take issue with a story that starts with a bang. The character is in trouble right away. The tension is high. You’re desperate to read on to see what happens next. One of the first lessons I learned (and this is vital when you send your opening pages to an agent or editor) is … that first sentence or two, that first word even, is vital. Agents are notorious for never reading past the first paragraph, many admit they stop after the first sentence. So if you don’t grab them immediately you’re toast. My friends continually battered me with examples of books they were reading. “I can’t get past the first sentence!” they cried. “I fret over the first word. I ask myself, is it hitting me hard, making an impression on me?” We pretty much beat this to death for months.

A good opening should hit one of the important elements of an opening scene: setting, setup, backstory, characteristics of the protagonist, foreshadowing, identifying the time period or a story worthy problem. An editor once told me you need to say a character’s name 25 times before your reader will remember it!

Look at the following examples of first sentences and see if they grab your interest. They’re all from famous novels.

The intense interest aroused in the public by what was known at the time as “The Styles Case” has now somewhat subsided. “Aroused”-great word. Suggests a story-worthy problem.

It was 2 p.m. on the afternoon of May 7, 1915. Setting.

The kettle began it! Tension. Foreshadowing.

My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. Introduces character? Great words- imagery-“infant tongue.”

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. Story setup.

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-on years in the world with very little to distress or vex her. Introduces character. Setting.

Mr. Phileas Fogg lived, in 1872, and No. 7, Savill Row, Burlington Gardens, the house in which Sheridan died in 1814. Introduces character. Setting.

My first novel was a YA paranormal about the Afterlife. The title, THE WIVES OF LUCIFER: THE MARK OF THE CRESCENT MOON, is already high tension. What’s more dangerous and dark than Lucifer? Death is probably the most serious challenge a protagonist can face. In my case, my protagonist is already dead so the need to amp up the tension and conflict proved daunting.

Here are the first lines from my writings. I’ve struggled with them for days, months sometimes. See how they measure up.

The body of the boy floated in the inky water, his vacant eyes black as the sea.

The tiny blue spark snapped the padlock open and the squealing gate allowed us entry. Whimpers filled the fetid air.

Cold as hell, and I meant it. A numbing, bone-shattering cold.

Alyx crept out of bed and padded to the bathroom. She’d slept in Jason’s tee shirt, again, which made absolutely no sense.

The putrid smell of flowers makes me queasy. The air in the room is syrupy sweet making it difficult to breathe.

Three humongous cockroaches scurry across the locker room floor. Long, wiry antennae search for a dark corner to hide. But there is no place to hide from me.

I’m suffering from a serious case of ennui, which happens to be the French word for boredom. It should make me feel better knowing the French have given it such an elegant name, but it doesn’t.

Take your own survey. Pull some books off your shelf or go to the library and take note of the opening sentences in some of your favorite books. The opening scene in a novel can either make it or break it. It’s like a first impression and you only get one of those. You might be able to save yourself later, but why risk it? And if you really hope to sell your novel, a spectacular opening along with that query letter is the way to get there.

Up Next? Rock that opening scene!

Author: Caryn McGill

Caryn is a former high school science teacher, school district administrator and adjunct college professor.

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