How to Write a Great First Sentence

16 May

Belly Up, the debut story collection from Rita Bullwinkel, was a staff pick at The Paris Review and a highly anticipated book at several prominent websites.

There are few sentences so vexing as the first one. Perhaps the final sentence of a story or novel is just as tough, but at least by then you’ve written a complete thing that has led up to it, and so even if you don’t nail it (which many stories and novels do not), at least you managed to build up enough momentum to carry the reader all that way; they’re getting off the ride, regardless of how it ends. But first sentences can make or break a story. How many of us have flipped to a story in a collection, read the first sentence, thought, “Nah,” and closed the book.

You need those sentences to be great.

But also: a sentence that appears to be trying too hard, no matter how intriguing or beautiful it manages to be (in spite of all that effort, or because of it) will turn off a reader as quickly as a sentence that did not try at all.

The key is to be great without seeming to try.

A great example of a story collection full of first sentences that have the tempting quality of a first drink or bite of cake (of course you will keep eating or drinking), but also the same sneaky nonchalance of liquor and cake, is Rita Bullwinkel’s debut collection, Belly Up. You can find the book here.

How the Stories Work

There are too many great first sentences in the book to pick just one. So I want to show you several, to demonstrate what is possible with the opening line of a story. Here is the first sentence from “Burn”:

“People kept dying and I was made to sleep in their beds.”

One of the things that Bullwinkel has in spades is a wry, understated tone. That’s a strategy that works best when there is something to understate, which means the story has to be about something grander than a slice of dry-toast life. Clearly, this story has got that. The distance between premise and tone is the first thing the sentence does well (and you’ll see that again and again in the story in Belly Up). 

It also introduces the premise as an ongoing routine. In workshop, we often talk about starting stories in media res, and the bad version of that is something like “So there I am, fighting a wildcat with laser eyes, and I’m thinking, who’s going to have the coffee ready when my stupid husband wakes up.” Such a sentence might start in the middle of the action, but it has a kind of artifice to it that can drag the story down eventually. In real life, nobody tells stories like that. We start at the beginning. The trick is to make the beginning sound as if the story is really about to launch into something good.

I also love how matter-of-fact the sentence is. The temptation in stories that reach beyond the bounds of usual happenstance is that they reach into the realm of the stories that third-graders tell: “And then the ninjas popped out. And the dinosaur ate the school. And aliens landed.” Bullwinkel starts with people dying and then moves to an essential part of any life: sleeping.

The story “What I Would Be If I Wasn’t What I Am” starts like this:

“I had a husband.”

In that sentence, Bullwinkel has managed to create suspense and intrigue out of one of the most boring verbs in the language. In this sentence, have would be unremarkable. But had is weird, a tense nobody would choose. Even if you were divorced or your husband was dead, you probably would say this particular combination of words. As writers, it’s tempting to reach for the fireworks, but anything unusual, no matter how small, can grab a reader’s attention.

The story “Hunker Down” starts this way:

“By the time my daughter came of age, the economy was so bad that it was cheaper to hire someone to hold her breasts up than it was to buy her a bra.”

As with the opening sentence from “Burn,” there’s a level of understatement at work here. But there’s also a razor-sharp wit, something that George Saunders has and Paul Beatty and a whole lot of grandmas and grandpas: the ability to cut someone (often you) down with only a few words. They do it by making it personal. Imagine all the ways a sentence starting, “The economy was so bad that…” could end. It’s like one of those old-school comedian jokes. The challenge is to finish it well, and Bullwinkel does it by moving toward the personal and physical. As Tim O’Brien wrote in “How to Tell a True War Story,” in a good story, the body knows what’s true before the brain does.

In “Decor,” she starts this way:

“There was a period of my life in which my primary source of income came from being a piece of furniture.”

Again, there’s that wry, understated tone. There’s also the joke set up (my primary source of income came from…” and the finish that swerves in a direction you couldn’t have predicted. Again, it implies the physical: what does it mean to be a piece of furniture? And also the mental and moral: what does it mean to be a piece of furniture?

Finally, she starts “Fried Dough” like this:

“A particular type of love story takes place in twenty-four hour donut shops.”

The understated tone, the joke setup and…the sense of place. One of my high school English teachers liked to say (just as yours did, no doubt) that nothing original had been written since Shakespeare; this sentence proves that statement wrong. There are plenty of unexplored places in fiction, places that your readers know so intimately that to be reminded of them is to smell them, to touch parts of them. A 24-hour donut shop is a place that lingers in your brain the way bad smells attach to your skin and clothes. When you find a place like that, stay there. Put the reader there as quickly as you can. And then bring life to that place. There’s no better way to do so than to start a love story.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try out some first-sentence strategies, using Belly Up by Rita Bullwinkle as a model:

  1. Play with tone. If you know the sort of story you’re introducing, play around with different styles for a straightforward first sentence. You can be deadpan, witty, angry, or mellow. You can be hiding something from the reader (or yourself) or just throwing it all out there. You can be nervous or bold. What is the narrator’s or main character’s approach to the material? Write a sentence with a style that fits that approach.
  2. Introduce routine. You can use use this old standby: “Every day we did the same thing, until one day…” Or you can use a word like kept, which suggests that something is happening despite someone’s best efforts to stop it.
  3. Play with words that might otherwise go unnoticed. Change a noun to a slightly less usual version of that noun. Do the same thing with verbs. This doesn’t necessarily mean substituting canter for walk; don’t be like a freshman composition student pulling out the old thesaurus to impress a teacher. A word doesn’t need to be a novelty to be unexpected.
  4. Treat the sentence like a joke setup. Try these: “X was so Y that I Z’d.” Or “There was a time when I was so X that Y.” Use the reader’s natural inclination to hear out the joke to get them interested in the story.
  5. Make the sentence personal and physical. Even if you start with something weird and abstract, by the end of the sentence, move to the body. Make the readers feel your story on their skin.
  6. Dig into setting. It can be as simple as simply naming an unusual setting and telling us the kind of story that will take place there: a love story in a donut shop. Or, a matter of life and death in a day-old bread store.

The goal is to introduce your story in a way that draws the reader in. We think of shock as a good approach, but shock often pushes readers back. The sentences in Belly Up are unexpected and also inviting.

Good luck.

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6 Responses to “How to Write a Great First Sentence”

  1. mbautorin May 24, 2018 at 8:02 p05 #

    I think your link to the book got mixed up. It links to a book about the science of the jellyfish and the art of growing a backbone. That actually also sounds very interesting, especially the latter, but I don’t think, it’s what you had in mind.

  2. michaelnoll1 May 24, 2018 at 8:02 p05 #

    Ah, thank you for pointing this out! The link is fixed.

  3. Itqon Askary June 22, 2018 at 8:02 p06 #

    This was really enlightening!!

  4. Mom June 24, 2018 at 8:02 p06 #

    I love this post! You have me thinking (I searched “opening lines” etc) because I’m down to a pretty tidy rough MS for my novel. I’ve been kicking around about three different openings…I don’t want the typical “Once Upon a Time” thing. But I don’t really like being hit over the head with a shocker when I open a book at B&N. So, these suggestions have me thinking in a productive way. I don’t want to self publish. I want a real live agent. Getting one to take more than a glancing look-see is pretty tough — making the choice of my opener even more important. I’ll be following your posts for sure!

  5. Maureen Kerber July 3, 2018 at 8:02 p07 #

    Some inspiration 😉

    Maureen

    >

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