Tuesday 6 December 2011

Opening Sentences . . .

A friend of mine brought up a subject last night regarding opening sentences. He wanted, in our opinion, an example of a bad opening sentence. Of course, off the top of our heads we couldn't think of one - but a few good ones did come to mind.

The opening sentence is usually the hardest part to write for a writer, especially a noob who is sitting at their desk with a blank page, wanting to start something that'll make them their fortune (they'll find out the hard truth in their own time). They can envisage a whole story before their very eyes; they know their characters, know their setting, know their predicaments - but what words do they use to introduce them all? How do you write that all important first sentence?

There are many ways you can start a book off. This all depends on your story and how you want to tell it. For me, I like sentences that drop you in it. As soon as you open the first page, you're chin deep in action. With many action scenes, one of the best ways to keep the tension is by using short sentences, so my opening sentences are pretty short.

“Get those god-damn sails in!”

These are the very firsts words to my current WIP. It's an order so instantly you know you're smack bang in the middle of something. The use of the words 'god-damn' kind of indicate the speakers frustration, and the exclamation mark tells of the order's importance (at least that's what I hope it portrays).

For me, I like the shorter opening sentence, but lets look a random few from some randomly selected and successful authors:

1: A whispered name.

A ghostly whisper fit for James Herbert's novel 'Haunted'.

2: The trawler plunged into the angry swells of the dark, furious sea like an awkward animal trying desperately to break out of an impenetrable swamp.

Okay, it puts you in the middle of something ferocious, but the opening sentence to Robert Ludlow's 'The Bourne Identity' is a tad long for my preference. Fantastic read though.

3: The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

A fantastic opening to one of my all-time favourite reads, 'The Dark Tower' by Stephen King.

4: I am the vampire Lestat.

Anne Rice's character introduces himself immediately in her novel 'The Vampire Lestat' - another good read.

5: Norma ran.

Instantly you're thrown into the action in Rod Rees's first novel 'The Demi-Monde: Winter (yet another good read. Go check his blog out).

6: There was a smattering of applause as Malcolm Fox entered the room.

Hmmm...what has Malcolm done to warrant this applaud. Ian Rankin's 'The Complaints'.

7: A killer stalked the shadows.

Is he? Who is he and will he succeed? Jon Sprunk's 'Shadow's Son'. Can't wait to finally read the sequel, 'Shadow's Lure'.

8: Once...Upon...A...death, when life for Thom Kindred was fading fast and his inner eyes, the eyes that focused from his soul, were already dazzled by the shining way ahead (was the brilliance approaching him, or was he approaching it? he wondered in a curiously detached way), when his twenty-seven years apparently were drawing to a close, something occurred that halted the untimely rush.

Hmm hmmm...never noticed this when I read James Herbert's 'Once'. Despite thoroughly enjoying the read way back when I read it, I never realised how long this opening sentence was.

James Herbert is a successful author of horror and well established in his field. The fact that opening sentences like these get published every day proves that I'm speaking of personal preference here. If you've started your novel with a gripping sentence that is as long as your arm, great - if it works. But I still prefer the shorter stuff...


  1. Good post. Thing is, the opening sentence of a book by an unknown author submitted to agent or publisher has to have that extra something amazing, as it's the second thing they'll judge you on after the title. Very tricky to pull off. It has to be extremely unusual and intriguing. The one I always see referenced is Iain Banks: "It was the day my grandmother exploded" (forget which book, oops). The Bourne Identity one is seriously adjective-heavy and wouldn't go down well if coming from an unknown.

    I wouldn't advise a new author to sweat over it before writing the rest of the book - it's probably one of the last things to be perfected before sending it out.

  2. Oh I agree. I noob writer should relax and enjoy the flow of the story then worry about the finer details after, but for many just starting their first novel - or even well established writers - the first sentence can be the hardest.

    'It was the day my grandmother exploded' is a fantastic opening line. And if a fantastic opening line leads you to an even better opening chapter, then you may get a curious glance from an agent or publisher...but just a glance though ;)

  3. I like your opening sentence. My opening sentence is "Last night I died for the third time this week," the seventeen-year-old boy said.

  4. Good first sentences come when you know what your book is doing...much like you always know what should have said last night when you wake up the following day.

  5. In my humble nothing can top, 'It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen' Pure, unadulterated genius. And thanks for the namecheck, much appreciated.

  6. Hi Michael, your opening sentence intrigues me. I find myself thinking how a 17 year old boy can die three times in a week? Is he someone who has found himself stuck in a time loop, like groundhog day? Definitely makes me want to read on to find out what's going on... ;)

    And Demi-Monde (hi there. No probs on the namecheck. Winter was a fantastic read and came with an opening sentence that was worthy of a mention ;D ) you're not alone with that opening sentence. It was one that was brought up in our conversation, but I can't remember what book it's from.

    Martin, help me out. You were there! you instigated the whole thing...

  7. Nice blog. Love your blog name and the typewriter photo.




  8. I'm so glad you like it, Elizabeth, and thank you for becoming a new follower... :)