Writing great first sentences by William Kowalski

Guest author and blogger William Kowalski is the author of Eddie’s Bastard, recently mentioned by the Guardian as an “overlooked classic of American literature”.

If you’ve ever attended a workshop or class on how to make your fiction manuscript more marketable, chances are you’ve heard the presenter stress the importance of a first page that grabs the reader’s attention and refuses to let go. I would take this a step further and say that the very first line of the story must be something really special, something that is uniquely yours. This is especially true when one is submitting work to a potential literary agent or editor. Like most aspects of crafting excellent fiction, it’s far easier said than done. What does it mean to say an opening is ‘strong’? What sets a good beginning apart from a mediocre one?

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Broadly speaking, your first sentence ought to give us the feeling that we’re being drawn into your world. One of the most common issues I come across as an editor, jurist, panelist, reviewer, and (occasionally) recreational reader is a beginning that simply plops us into a scene without bothering to make us feel welcome. There’s something almost rude about it, as if we’ve arrived at a party and the host hasn’t bothered to introduce us to anybody. We like to know a little something about who’s who and what’s going on, but not too much.

Great writing is something like a striptease. Your first sentence ought to make us feel compelled to read the next, and by the time we finish the first page we ought to feel that nothing short of a house fire will keep us from turning to the second. An excellent way to do this is to make your readers ask themselves questions about what’s going on.

Consider the very first line of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Road:

“When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.”

Within this single sentence is contained a promise of everything this book is going to be: disturbing, heartbreaking, frightening, and lyrical. McCarthy doesn’t bother with a lengthy introduction of his protagonist. We don’t learn his name here, or ever, in fact. He shows us the predicament of man and boy by placing them in the woods at night. What on earth are they doing there, we wonder? In the tender gesture of a father reaching out for his sleeping son, we see the strength of the bond that will impel the story forward. By McCarthy’s economical use of words, we know that we are in the hands of an author we can trust to lead us on a journey without wasting our time. And so we read on.

I particularly enjoy (and strive to create) openings that give us a sense of place, time, and mood. Another favourite of mine is The World According to Garp, by John Irving, the first line of which is:

“Garp’s mother, Jenny Fields, was arrested in Boston in 1942 for wounding a man in a movie theatre.”

Say what now? Who is this Garp person? Why is his mother assaulting men at the movies?

This is explained later in the very same paragraph, but by the time we’ve read that far, Irving has created even more questions in our minds. Because naturally we want to know the answers, he’s succeeded in what should be the goal of all writers. He’s gotten us to turn the page.

It’s a fact of human nature that we are insatiably curious. We always want to know why something is happening, or how something works, or what somebody did to who. Successful writers are not just wordsmiths. They understand, whether by instinct or through careful study, that people are basically monkeys attracted by strange, shiny things.

Incorporating your own understanding of this into your work will go a long way toward helping your writing become more engaging.

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Make the hardest part of writing easier