How to Write a Truly Unforgettable First Sentence

    unforgettable first sentence - pen and paper

    We have all done it, stared at that blank page with the desperate urge to write, only nothing comes out. We want to be in the zone. We want words flowing effortlessly from our fingertips. We want characters spouting witty banter that we, as writers, never even knew we had in us.

    But, alas… nothing.

    Just as the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step, though, every story ever written began with just one sentence. Indeed, some of the most memorable passages in literary history are the opening sentences from classics such as Moby Dick, A Tale of Two Cities, and Anna Karenina. Granted, these books had a lot of other sentences that supported the opener quite well, but without those opening sentences to hook readers, these books may not be held in the same esteem they are today.

    What is it that makes a first sentence memorable? It is the hint of something more. It’s the suggestion that builds anticipation for not just the next sentence, but perhaps the next chapter as well.

    As writers, one of the best ways for us to undermine the paralyzing power of the blank page is to focus on writing just one sentence. By telling ourselves, we will write one killer opening sentence, we set a manageable goal that, ideally, sets up the next sentence … maybe more. With a few sentences on the page, then, we have a story started.

    Here are a few opening sentence examples and why they work.

    It was the final flim-flam.

    This sentence works because it makes a reader wonder: what was the final flim-flam? what kind of person uses the term flim flam, anyway? And, why was this the final one? Was the last flim-flam so outrageous that there was to be a complete cessation of all flim-flammery?

    After regaining consciousness, my brother insisted he was a French ballet dancer and commenced pirouetting around the living room spouting, “Merci, Frommage!”

    This sentence works because the reader knows right away that something has happened to cause a character to lose and regain consciousness already. It begs the question: did the brother know ballet and/or French before the blackout? And if so, why is his French so incoherent now? Since this behavior is abnormal by normal standards, is it abnormal by this family’s standards? How old is the brother? Is he 8 or 38? It makes a difference. Finally, will he ever get a, “You are welcome” from the cheese?

    Ever since the brain surgery, I forget what I’ve said out loud and what I’ve said to myself.

    This sentence works because it suggests the following questions: Brain surgery? What for? What predicament could this lack of internal monologue get this character into? Will it continue to get him/her into trouble? If so, how? Are there any other quarks from the brain surgery, mental or physical? Is this person, in other ways, better off from the surgery? If so, how?

    The Secret of the First Sentence

    We have looked at a few sentences now and approached them as a reader would. For this exercise to work, you have to do it that way. As writers, we too often think we have to be in control. After all, we are the ones who know where the story is going, right?

    When we focus on the first sentence, the goal is to load it in such a way that we are asking the same questions that the reader will be asking. As such, we initiate a game of 20 questions with ourselves. We jot down different answers in our notebooks and decide which one gives us something solid to work with. Before you know it, you have a second sentence… and, ideally, a general sense of where the story might be heading.

    The Sentence Journal

    The final benefit of this type of exercise is that it doesn’t take very long. If you are anything like me, you have to try to find time to cram writing into your schedule. Sometimes, you may only get 15 minutes of your day for writing. This exercise is perfect for such occasions. In fact, I keep a journal of only first sentences.

    This serves a two-fold purpose. First, it allows me to do something productive with limited time. Second, when I have more time to write, I can refer the sentence journal for prompts to kickstart my writing sessions.

    Finally, remember that you don’t have to write The Great American Novel every time you sit down to mash the keys. More often than not, a good sentence is all you really need to get a story going. Go ahead, write one and share it in the comments section now.

    About the author

      Brenda Hineman

      Brenda Hineman is a freelance writer who favors topics such as movies, costuming, and naturally, writing.

    • Wow! What a great article. And so timely. I’ve long been an advocate of the power of the opening in a novel, and I’ve blogged on several occasions on how critical that first string of words can be to success.

      I would love permission to reprint this on my blog. How do I go about requesting it? Naturally, I would credit the source and the author. Please let me know if this would be acceptable. Thanks in advance.

      Michael

    • Here are some of my first sentences, in no particular order…

      1) “All I wanted to do was save the world,” wailed Susie. “It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this!”

      2) The fridge had gone missing again.

      3) Dan Gaunt squirted half a tube of Tabasco into his chilli. It still tasted like ashes.

      4) It was pretty scary watching the witch sing “Happy Birthday”.

      5) “And where do you think you’re going with that poison, Ma’am?”

      6) Thrice upon a time I rescued a princess from a tower.

    • Good to know I am not the only one obsessing over my first sentences and opening paragraphs even on all my posts – thank you for the tips and for the affirmation!

    • Firegirl says:

      Wow!

      This article made me realize how important the first sentence can really be, whether it’s for a book or a blog post. I really need to start stretching my imagination and creating better opening sentences!

    • This is not just a sentence, but a full-on opening.

      “Antoine stood in the hallway, his locker door half-closed and his jaw half-way to the floor. There, not six feet away, stood the most beautiful girl on the planet. He was four lockers from heaven. She glanced at him and he smiled a toothy grin. She glanced at the floor and, raising her eyes again, smiled shyly back at him.”

      I (unpublished wannabee) am helping a young man learn (the little I know about) composition and I gave this as an example of ‘showing’ instead of his very wooden ‘telling’.

      I think that, if you have an idea of what your writing intention is, a workable first sentence will ‘just come’. As you come to the end of your writing, take another look at it. If it still stands, leave it. If not, you’ll know why not and have a good idea of how to fix it.

      Beyond that, if you can’t come up with a good first sentence, write the second sentence instead. That way you will be starting closer to the end. 🙂

      • I like your opening. I’d probably read on, which is pretty much the point of openings.

    • S0BeUrself says:

      My first sentence didn’t come to me until several months into my book. It’s simple, but ties in with key imagery. I would advice not over thinking it. As with themes, first sentences have a way of creating themselves.

    • Issa says:

      What’s all with these words? I started my writing career in poetry and sometimes, when your creative juices are squeezed dried… you come up with that sentence that makes you snag a trophy: ” I am the sanity of insanity.. ”

      I don’t think many will agree with what you wrote here, but yes, a sentence can turn into paragraphs.. into a page… a chapter… a short story… a novel ( and the saga goes on ).

    • I love it. Getting that first sentence is huge yet it’s so much more manageable than sitting down to write a whole article. Start with something that seems doable and then just sit down and make it happen. Baby steps. I will definitely put this to work in my writing.

      Thanks!
      Scott

    • MsAmberE says:

      “Just when I thought it was over, he turned to me and began to speak.”

    • Many of my first lines and titles come from snatches of conversation I’ve had with someone or overheard.

      Long ago when my children were studying violin, for example, their violin teacher said one day, “Bach had three fine handsome sons.” That became the start of lyrics I wrote to Bach’s Minuet One to help my kids learn the piece.

      More recently I was waiting for my order in a quaint coffee shop in San Diego. As I watch the clerk take other orders, her constant query, “Do you want that here or to go?” kept ringing in my ears. It lead me to write a blog post–Want that Happiness Here or to Go?

      I love it when I discover first lines or ideas in this way. It’s like discovering a treasure chest. All I have to do is pull out the jewels.

    • Bob says:

      Many times I’ve sat down to write a blog post and didn’t have any idea what to write about. I would write one sentence and that one sentence would inspire a great blog post.

    • Jackie says:

      You wrote “We have all done it, stared at that blank page with the desperate urge to write, only nothing comes out.”

      No, actually we all haven’t done that. I’ve been a professional writer for years and I’ve never had that happen. And I don’t believe in “writer’s block” either. There’s either sitting down in the chair and being prepared to write or there is being distracted.

      • Haiden says:

        For some reason, I find that a little hard to believe. Never? If that’s true, then you’re the first writer I have ever met to say so. I’d also say you were pretty lucky, or skilled, however you see it.

      • Tommy says:

        I thought that was a week opening sentence for a piece on opening sentences. Since she later comes at the issue from the stance of readers, she could have said something personally contemplative like:

        “Why have I read thousands of first sentences, but only hundreds of books?”

        or more generally appealing:

        “In shops around the world books are being judged by their covers and writers are being judged by their first sentences.”

        or something ironic:

        “How often do you not read past the first sentence?”

    • Murlu says:

      When I first started writing I’d open the article but lately I’ve just been writing the content, then going back for the first sentence.

      I think it’s because the body is where you can talk about the subject in detail. Whenever I’m done, I have a greater sense of knowledge about the subject so I could then brainstorm what I could use for the first sentence.

      It also seems to help me get the work done because I’m not trying to focus on the opening – I jump right into the content.

      Very interesting article – the first sentence can make or break you – I need to work on it more often 🙂

    • I began writing a blog post and as my finger was about to meet the keys, I heard a knock at the door…

    • Perry says:

      On of the tricks I use to get that sentence down is to type the name of the character and “said”. I find if I can get my characters talking, I can get the juices flowing. When I revise, I sometimes delete the first part, or insert something more appropriate to start the scene.

    • When the blood finally stopped, he got out of the car and started to walk.

    • Tarahlynn says:

      The executioner was dressing for the wedding.

      I went to a workshop once where we literally talked about nothing but first sentences for four hours. It was one of the funnest and most interesting workshops I’ve ever been to. The instructor (William Kent Kreuger) brought a list of a first sentences and I kept the entire list. They are so inspiring!

    • He walked out from underneath the tree and asked himself a question.


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