May 08

Help Wanted – First Sentence

Look, my old friend, my opening sentence . . . things are not working out. The other sentences are having to work overtime to make up for you. You’re not doing your share of the work, and your fit with the rest of the story is not what I expected. I thought you were the one. But I’ve changed and you are . . . still the same bunch of words I wrote last year. I’m sorry, but you have to go. You’re deleted.

Help Wanted: New first sentence needed in short story. Must be a team player, innovative, hard working, and dependable. Preferred applicants will have experience in attention grabbing, mood creation, and innuendo. Relocation possible.

A first sentence creates curiosity. In a short story, the writer wastes no time and no words delivering the beginning of the story. The main character incurs conflict almost immediately and begins in the action or mood of the piece. First sentences can deceive to intrigue the reader. Others warn of impending troubles. Point of view and narrative distance add richness and texture to the story and the voice of the writer. The theme is almost tangible in the first paragraph if not the very first sentence.

When I need a new sentence, I reference my favorite openers. Why does the sentence work? What is the unanswered question? Do words like beautiful, murderous and homeless lure readers? Can a sparse statement say more than a long sentence? How does Wolfe or Faulkner paint broad brushstrokes of the scene’s details? The collection below of short and long sentences demonstrates the magic of a powerful opening line.

“It seemed to Myop as she skipped lightly from her house to pigpen to smokehouse that the days had never been as beautiful as these.” — Alice Walker, “Flowers”

“One day you have a home and the next you don’t, but I’m not going to tell you my particular reasons for being homeless, because it is my secret story, and Indians have to work hard to keep secrets from hungry white folks.” — Sherman Alexie, “What You Pawn, I Will Redeem”

“In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits.” — John Updike, “A&P”

“Anders couldn’t get to the bank until just before it closed, so of course the line was endless and he got stuck behind two women whose loud, stupid conversation put him in a murderous temper.” — Tobias Wolfe, “Bullet in the Brain”

“‘Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting,’ she said.” — Amy Hempel, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried”

“Bill and Arlene Miller were a happy couple.” Raymond Carver, “Neighbors”

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” — Franz Kafka, “The Metamorphosis”

“They discovered the first one in a cupboard above the stove, beside an unopened bottle of malt vinegar.” — Jhumpa Lahiri, “This Blessed House”

“When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral: the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old manservant – a combined gardener and cook – had seen in at least ten years.” — William Faulkner, “A Rose For Emily”

“Do not go outside.” — Ander Monson, “To Reduce Your Likelihood of Murder”

“The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.” — Edgar Allan Poe, “The Cask of Amontillado”

“On the third day of rain they had killed so many crabs inside the house that Pelayo had to cross his drenched courtyard and throw them into the sea, because the newborn child had a temperature all night and they thought it was due to the stench.” — Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”

After reading successful first sentences, I interview several job applicants for my new first sentence. I try each one in the vacant space at the beginning of my story. The new sentences are so eager to please, changing to fit with the rest of the piece. Then, one sentence works harder than the rest.

Applying for the open position? Your application says you’re flexible with change. Good, my edits might move or change you. You might not even recognize yourself when I’m finished. Here’s where you will work. Sit down. Try it out. Think you can do the job?

 

11 comments

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    • Bob Washington on June 25, 2015 at 1:14 pm
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    Very interesting! The introduction is the most important part of any work of writing. I like what you did here keep up the good work

    • Karen Kittrell on May 20, 2015 at 11:20 am
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    Sue,

    That’s another great example of a question. What woman? Who is she? Thanks again.

    • Sue Remisiewicz on May 17, 2015 at 3:57 pm
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    Very enjoyable post, Karen. Good luck interviewing candidates. Another first line that I like is:

    “To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman.”

    by A. Conan Doyle – A Scandal in Bohemia

  1. Thank you, Karen, for sharing this intriguing collection of first sentences. What struck me, as I worked my way down the list, is how most first sentences are crafted to raise aquestion or questions in the reader’s mind – questions that only continued reading will answer.
    One of my faves is Herman Melville’s “Call me Ishmael.” It’s such a confident imperative. Melville intends the force and energy of the narrator’s first words to forge a vital connection with the reader – and also, again, to raise questions. Who is this Ishmael – and what does this blunt, direct narrator have to say to me?
    It sounds as though you’re really putting your first sentence candidates through their paces. But why not? The opening line is a key part of any creative work. As Mickey Spillane said, “Your first sentence sells your novel. Your last sentence sells your next one.”

      • Karen Kittrell on May 20, 2015 at 11:15 am
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      Jessica,

      While I tried to find a broad range of short story authors, I noticed all the first sentences raised a question. Your example of Melville is perfect for treading on the reputation of a Biblical name. We question how will this Ishmael wander? And where? Will he also be rescued from exhile?

    • Book Lover on May 9, 2015 at 11:29 pm
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    I understand the frustrating search for the perfect opening sentence to your story. Your opening sentences in conversational tone work beautifully in your blog. Keep up the good work.

      • Karen Kittrell on May 20, 2015 at 11:21 am
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      Thanks Book Lover for your support.

    • John Kittrell on May 8, 2015 at 3:30 pm
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    A promising author gives a fresh perspective.

    • Sandy Kittrell on May 8, 2015 at 3:25 pm
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    Clever idea – talking to your written word!

  2. Fun read.
    My favorite is “Marley was dead, to begin with.” From Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol.
    Anytime you start a suspense story with dead in the opening sentence, readers are certain to follow.

      • Karen Kittrell on May 8, 2015 at 7:11 pm
      • Reply

      Thanks Phil,

      And would we ever be so bold “to begin with?” I’ll watch for the dead in the first sentence.

      Thanks again.

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