“Fifty years and I finally murdered my wife.”
That’s what the first sentence of your prose should do. It doesn’t have to grab you by the collar and shake you around or slap you in the face, but it needs to make your reader stop and pay attention. Hey, are you listening?
Unfortunately, a lot of us aspiring writers look at this and seriously contemplate taking the trash out instead.
Scary, isn’t it?
Today my girlfriend called me because her student wanted to know how to grab his reader’s attention. It’s simple, but it’s not. It’s one of those “well you should do this, but you don’t have to if it works, but then other people have done that…” kind of moments. I didn’t know what to tell him.
That’s the thing about art. There are no rules, but there are guidelines to help you out.
An opening sentence should be dynamic, it should be active, and ideally, it should provide the first glimpse into your character or setting. Also, a good rule of thumb is to never start the sentence with a weak word, i.e. I, the, a, we, ect. The first word should be strong to make the rest of your sentence strong.
Thomas Pynchon wrote one of my favorite: “A screaming comes across the sky.”
Where did the scream come from? Who’s screaming? Why isn’t Lassie here to save the day? I’m kidding. Regardless, it poses questions that the reader wants to know, and the only way they’ll find out is by reading more. That’s why it’s good.
Notice it doesn’t have anything to do with the character or setting. The first is “A.” No rules, remember?
The only thing matters is that it works.
How about this?
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”
Poetic, no? This is what follows.
“She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.”
UGH! I love it!
Of course, it turns out that the narrator is talking about a fourteen year old girl in the novel Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, but it grabs you like a woman’s perfume grabs you as she passes.
It makes you wonder. It makes you question. Who is Lolita and why is he so infatuated with her? Then it evolves. Why is he in love with a little girl?
That’s what makes a first sentence good: it makes your reader want more.