The Power of Opening Sentences

In the publishing world, your opening sentence can make or break your work. You’re not supposed to state the obvious or write a long run-on sentence that tries to cram in the essence of whatever your piece is about. The opening sentence should pique your curiosity and make you want to keep reading in hopes that your questions about the story will all be answered and wrapped up by the end.

I read this recent article in The Atlantic, and in it, Stephen King is quoted as saying, “But for me, a good opening sentence really begins with voice.” Even if you’re not writing something in first person, the voice should be strong enough to attach the reader to the character and draw the reader in. Sometimes a character’s voice is so powerful that the story almost comes in second — I know that’s been the case for me. I enjoy reading YA novels every now and then, and character or narrator voice is an important element of that genre.

However, I’m also a bit more forgiving. If the opening sentence is boring or doesn’t immediately hook me, I won’t put the book down. (Might be a different story if I was an acquisitions editor.) I normally read books all the way to the end, even if I don’t particularly care for them (unless I’m that bored or the book is that bad). I imagine that many everyday readers would be forgiving about opening sentences (but maybe not opening paragraphs or opening chapters).

Even so, it is most definitely worth it to craft your opening sentence well. Spend a lot of time on it. Set up the overall voice or tone of your story and give a little hint as to what your genre is and what might happen over the course of the book. It’s an exercise in brevity — you should keep it short and punchy, yet revealing.

In the article, Stephen King says his favorite first line from his books is the one from Needful Things. Short, sweet, and to the point, it reads, “You’ve been here before.” A line like that automatically calls the reader out and draws him in. (Second person has a tendency to do that with all those imperatives, but thankfully, the book doesn’t stay in second person.) To me, the line is almost haunting — you wonder where “here” is and what happened when you were supposedly there “before.”

What’s your favorite opening sentence that you’ve read?

8 thoughts on “The Power of Opening Sentences

  1. Sound advice. Difficult to chose the best opening line ever – like music, for me it varies with mood.
    However, I just skimmed across a post about the best 100 opening lines of novels and one that sticks in my mind is the start of The Tale Of Two Cities – “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
    Goes on a bit too long for modern tastes/style but it still resonates.

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