Famous First Words: The Power of the Opening Sentence

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By Tara Johnson

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” ~ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Lewis, 1952)

There’s nothing that sets mood, reveals character, raises intrigue and invites readers into your story like a power-packed opening.

When I was editing my latest release All Through the Night, I studied the first chapter, sensing something was off. Turning to my bookcase, I grabbed the newest story I was dying to read. Becoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan.

I flipped to the first page.

“From the beginning it was the Great Lion who brought us together.”

That’s a great line.

I reached for Pride and Prejudice.

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

I yanked volume after volume off my shelves to examine each book’s opening lines and turned to stare at the first page of my story.

That’s what was a missing. An intriguing opening.

All Through the Night originally opened up like this:

“Cadence Piper walked down the darkened street, breath ragged.”

It tells the reader nothing about Cadence or invoke curiosity.

The rewrite:

’Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.’ I will fear no evil. I will fear no evil…Cadence Piper walked down the darkened street, clutching her reticule to her middle.”

The lovely thing about power-packing the opening sentence of your story, and each chapter, is there’s a variety of sentences to choose from.

  1. Action sentence.

This should point to something intrinsically important to the character’s situation, or hint at the conflict that is coming.

Ex. “When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.” ~ Richard Stark, Firebreak

  1. Character Sentence.

This tells us more than our character’s name: it reveals what they value.

Ex. “When the blind man arrived in the city, he claimed that he had traveled across a desert of living sand.” ~Kevin Brockmeier, A Brief History of the Dead

  1. Dialogue

Dialogue immediately pulls the reader into the thick of the action. Note of warning: be careful to quickly establish who is speaking and give the reader some sense of time and place.

Ex. “He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eyes that’s halfway hopeful.” ~DeLillo, Underworld

  1. Thought

This is highly effective when done well. The higher the stakes, the more desperate, or quirky, or shocking the thought.

Ex. “Don’t fail. Tonight of all nights, don’t fail.” ~Johnson, Engraved on the Heart

  1. Statement

This is the broadest yet creatively diverse of all. It can be self-deprecating, philosophical, humorous, or mysterious, as long as it fits the tone and premise of your story.

Ex. “I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homework that Truth is a matter of the imagination.” ~LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness

Ex. “All children, except one, grow up.” ~Barrie, Peter Pan

  1. World-Building

This transports the reader into a new place. It can be a galaxy far, far away, or to the peaceful shores of Prince Edward Island.

Ex. “Far out into the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy, lies a small, unregarded yellow sun.” ~Adams, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

Take the current opening line of your WIP and rewrite it in all six of these sentence types. You may be surprised how much it changes.

When in doubt, don’t be afraid to start with a classic.

Once upon a time…

How to power-pack your story’s opening line. @TaraMinistry #ACFWBlogs #writetip #critiques #ACFWCommunity Click To Tweet Types of opening sentences: which one should you use? @TaraMinistry #ACFWBlogs #writetip #critiques #ACFWCommunity Click To Tweet

Tara Johnson is an author and speaker and writes stories that help people break free from the lies they believe about themselves. Tara’s debut novel Engraved on the Heart (Tyndale) earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly and finaled in the Carol and Christy awards. She has been featured in magazines, on radio, television, and numerous podcasts. She is a history nerd and loves making people laugh.


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