The first sentence is part of what is commonly known as the hook — the few statements, questions, and/or phrases that begin a writing piece that provoke your audience to keep reading. In storytelling, it can be an artful seduction, luring your readers into your story so that they cannot help but go on to the second sentence. And the third. And the fourth. And so on. This is often done by not giving it all away in the opening sentence, putting your readers in a position where they have to read on for more context, for more of the experience you created for them, for more of whatever you teased them with. Ultimately, the goal is to make your story as clear as it is compelling, keeping your audience engaged throughout your entire piece. The methods used to carry this out will vary based on the writer’s specific goal, the writer’s genre, their personal tastes, and the part of their written piece they are working on. But since we are focusing on the opening sentence, we will be looking at the very beginning portion of some stories and explore different techniques in which writers, knowingly or unknowingly, made their opening line command their reader’s attention.
Let’s pretend for a moment that we pulled apart all of your organs and laid them on a table. -Brianna Weist, The Parts of You That Aren’t “I”
Shock factor. Intrigue. A glaringly implied, “Why would I do that?” All three of those things are brilliantly packed in that opening sentence. It begs for context. It begs for further explanation. And the only way those two things can be satisfied is if the reader continues reading. Not only that but you are the subject of Brianna’s essay. You are her topic of interest. She is not discussing her body but yours. Essays often have the writers as their subjects but she flipped the role and made it about you.
They shoot the white girl first. -Toni Morrison, Paradise
This legendary author’s opening line in one of her acclaimed novels is as horrifying as it is succinct. Race often makes some people uncomfortable and she uses it. Violence is shocking thing and she also uses it. And if the white girl was shot “first,” you as a reader could infer that someone else will likely be a victim. But again, you would have to keep reading to see where the story goes.
He was six feet of godliness and danger. -Tyece Wilkins, The Spark
We hear the saying that “cleanliness is next to Godliness” but Tyece found something very different in this man she encountered. She epically stated his paradoxical personality. The paradox is fantastic since it begs for further context and the impact of her opening sentence was made even greater by its brevity. Like Morrison, she intelligently proves that epic things come in small packages.
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. -George Orwell, 1984
This widely known classic has one of my favorite opening lines. What Orwell did in his novel is pretty self-explanatory but how he manages to do it is what impresses me most. It only took one word at the very end of a pretty simple sentence to go from ordinary to unusual. Simple writing often wins.
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. -William Gibson, Neuromancer
Such a strange color for the sky. And it completely makes sense. After all, this well known novel is science fiction. Notice, again, how the author uses simple, select words to create such a vivid picture in the opening sentence.
In some senses, I will never not be broken hearted again. -Shannon, notes on heartbreak
This is a somber, very vulnerable statement. Vulnerability has a sense of drawing people in when it is artfully executed as she has done that, both in her opening sentence and throughout her essay.
It is time to come clean and admit that one main motive for writing on here is self-serving. -Mary, The Nearly Live-Saving Reasons Why I Write
This is one of my opening sentences. I was well aware that by writing my opening sentence exactly like this, I was opening myself up to possible judgement. Being self-serving is not a virtue. Admitting something like that will require an explanation, so I gave it in the form of a personal essay, hands trembling when I hit that publish button yet having zero regrets once it was live. And as it turns out, the essay that contains that opening sentence is among the most relatable posts for my audience, making it clear to me that writing is just as much of a fellowship as it is a journey. <3
If there’s anything I’m good at it’s being deeply, intrinsically, thoughtfully sad. -Roconia Price, Sunday Sads, A Mirror and a Mic
When a person states something they are good at, they typically would not mention mention something like sadness. However, readers are drawn to honesty and people who are not trying to front. Roconia is a pro at consistently keeping it 100.
Why I Chose These Examples
I purposefully chose both fiction novels and online personal essays as examples because I noticed the similarities in many of their opening sentences. When done well, their hooks have a very similar command of attention that is captivating compared to, say, autobiographical or biographical books; books in those genres are usually created after an important figure has gained a significant amount of acclaim, resulting in people wanting to read their life story. Typically, the first sentence of such books are not soul-punching. But attention-grabbing novels and personal essays tend to have a strong, very present voice from the jump. Since these genres are quite different, a number of folks may not find their similarities.
But at their core, personal essays and fiction novels, while different in their truthfulness, share a common goal: to create a satisfying, emotional experience for their readers to engage with. Readers are humans, so if a fiction novelist — even one of the sci-fi variety — captures a reader’s attention, then the author has successfully created at least one character and/or scenario that speaks to their humanity. When a personal essayist has recounted their thoughts or experiences and the reader is feeling it, the essayist has also managed to do the same. Both personal essays and novels require artful storytelling. And storytelling is one of the most fundamental ways humans relate to one another.
Based on the examples I mentioned earlier, I created a bulleted summation of the techniques used below. They represent just a few of the ways that the writers, intentionally or unintentionally, make their opening sentences attention-grabbing in personal essays and novels. If we had to turn them into tips that someone could possibly reference to later, this is what they would look like:
- Make the reader the subject of the writing
- Create a shocking moment that works with your story or goal
- Succinctly establish a vivid setting
- Make a paradoxical statement or observation
- Go from an ordinary moment to an unusual one very quickly
- Make a statement that a person would not usually say
- Be bold enough to make a statement that may elicit a judgmental response
- Don’t put up a front and share your “flaw” (or a character’s flaw, if fictional)
And just so we are on the same page, focusing on the first sentence when creating the hook is only one method when creating our stories’ introductions. There are moments this works well with your story or plot and other times where it is not necessary. And that is only determined by the writer. That is the beauty of creativity. 🙂
1. Which one method(s) would you use in your writing in the future? Have you ever knowingly or unknowingly used any of the techniques listed above? What is another technique that is not listed here? Let me know in the comment section below.
2. Check out the links in the above examples. See if you can get a sample reading of the books if you don’t have them (iBooks has samples). Observe how the opening sentences work in their respective paragraphs. What do you notice?