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?