“Always grab the reader by the throat in the first paragraph, sink your thumbs into his windpipe in the second, and hold him against the wall until the tagline.” —Paul O’Neil
My friend James Scott Bell is the author of many best-selling thrillers, including Breach of Promise, Deadlock, and Try Dying. He’s also one of the best writing teachers around. In his book Plot & Structure, he talks about the importance of the beginning of your story or novel:
The first task of your beginning is to hook the reader. Period.
And remember, that first reader is going to be an agent or editor. Tough crowd. These are people who have too many manuscripts to go through each day. They are just itching for a reason to put yours down.
Don’t give them that reason.
Bell’s advice is seconded by science fiction writer William F. Nolan, who recalls his own stint as an editor:
In 1963, when I was managing editor of the SF/fantasy magazine Gamma, I would reserve one morning each week for the “slush pile” — the stack of unagented manuscripts from new writers who hoped to crack the pages of our magazine. I had a sure-fire method for getting through the slush pile quickly; I’d pull a typed manuscript halfway out of its envelope and read the first paragraph. If I liked it, I’d remove the entire story and read it through. But if that opening paragraph didn’t grab me, I’d let the manuscript slide back into its mailing envelope and that would be the end of it. Another rejection.
Brutal, right? Unfair to those poor writers to judge their whole story from just the opening paragraph, right? Wrong. For me, the acid test of the story is its opening. A good story should leap off the page, grab you by the throat, and demand, “Read me!”
We’re talking about hooking your readers with mood or character or incident or with a unique situation. Getting them involved, from the start.
Every writer dreams of crafting an opening sentence that grabs the reader by the windpipe. But don’t put too much pressure on yourself. In fact, it’s often best to save the first for last, to leap headlong into your story without knowing what your first sentence will be. There are several good reasons for writing your first sentence after the rest of your story has been written.
First, by the time you finish your first draft, you may decide to cut your first paragraph, your first page, or even your first chapter. As Anton Chekhov observed, “Once a story has been written, one has to cross out the beginning and the end. It is there that we authors do most of our lying.” Why agonize over a sentence that may end up on the cutting room floor?
Second, if you chase too long and hard after that perfect opening line, you may end up with a sentence that sounds self-conscious, contrived, and forced. Great writing flows naturally and freely from the unconscious mind. A sentence that has been painstakingly cobbled together with the obvious intention to impress can be a huge turnoff to editors and readers alike.
Third, if you put too much pressure on yourself to produce a sparkling first sentence, you may tip yourself into a severe writer’s block on the first page. Pressure paralyzes creativity. It frightens the Muse. So go easy on yourself. Relax, have fun, and just write.
A book doesn’t have to be written in the same order it will be read. You can start writing in the middle of your story, or you can let it grow organically from a game of word association. There’s no right way or wrong way to create a story or novel.
One of my favorite opening lines is the first sentence of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: “It was a pleasure to burn.” It’s brilliantly simple, yet it captures the mood and tension of the story. It sucks us in and rivets our eyes to the page.
But that sentence didn’t appear in the earliest version of Fahrenheit 451, his 1947 short story “Bright Phoenix.” And that sentence didn’t appear in the expanded version of that story, a 1950 novella called “The Fireman.” Only when Bradbury was writing the full and final version of the novel in 1953 did he stumble onto that brilliant opening line. The moral of the story: Don’t be afraid to save the first for last.
Dorothea Brande, in Becoming a Writer, advises, “If a good first sentence does not come, leave a space for it and write it in later. Write as rapidly as possible.” Larry McMurtry makes a similar case in a scene from his 1989 novel Some Can Whistle (the narrator is protagonist Danny Deck, and he’s talking to his friend Godwin, a British professor):
I had been trying to write a novel, and I was still hung up on the first sentence.
“The point I have been patiently trying to make,” Godwin said impatiently, “is that you expect far too much of a first sentence. Think of it as analogous to a good country breakfast: what we want is something simple, but nourishing to the imagination. Hold the philosophy, hold the adjectives, just give us a plain subject and verb and perhaps a wholesome, non-fattening adverb or two.”
You need more than a clever opening line to grab a reader by the throat. Your entire first page must ensnare the reader and not let go. You do this by introducing a vivid character, by setting an emotionally intense mood, by drawing the reader into a dramatic and compelling situation — not with clever wordplay.
The opening line is a promise you make to the reader. Be sure you keep that promise. Never trick the reader with an opening line that is nothing but a bad dream, a bad joke, or a false alarm. Your story should honestly fulfill the promise you make in your opening. If not, the reader will feel cheated — and won’t be tempted by your next story. “Fool me once. . .!”
A great opening is not just about the first sentence. It’s about a bond of trust you establish with your reader on page one. You want that reader to trust you to entertain him or her again and again and again.
So grab your readers by the throat and squeeze hard. Show no mercy. The tighter your grip, the more they’ll love you for it.
Discover the uninhibited creative power to write faster and more brilliantly than ever before. Read Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly by Jim Denney [Kindle Edition available at Amazon.com for $3.99] [Print edition available at Amazon.com for $7.75]
And for a 90-day supply of inspirational, motivational writing insight, read Muse of Fire: 90 Days of Inspiration for Writers by Jim Denney.
Jim Denney has written more than 100 books for a variety of publishers. He’s the author of the four-book Timebenders science fantasy series for young readers, and is a member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA).