Tag Archives: National Novel Writing Month

Six Strategies for Writing One Great Sentence

9 Nov

Belly Up, the debut story collection from Rita Bullwinkel, was called “creepy, deadpan” and “emotionally powerful” by the New York Times.

It’s week two of National Novel Writing Month, and maybe you’re plugging along, doing great. Or maybe you’re still waiting for that “one true sentence,” as Hemingway said, that will carry you into the story.

The recent story collection, Belly Up by Rita Bullwinkel is chock full of first sentences that are so captivating, yet nonchalant, that you can’t help but want to keep reading. They’re also full of strategies that any writer can borrow in their own work.

How the Sentences 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 Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction: “An indispensable book that belongs on every serious writer’s desk.”

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 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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