8 Things to Keep OUT of Your Opening Sentence

In our on-demand culture, we need the best, and we needed it right now yesterday. There’s no time to afford mediocrity developing into greatness. If a TV show isn’t piquing my interesting within five minutes, then I’m switching on “Downton Abbey Zombieland.” If YouTube drivel doesn’t make me “lol” within thirty seconds, then I’m going to chew gum instead. And if the first sentence of a story doesn’t suffice, then your writing isn’t worth my time (or anyone’s else).

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

Hi W.A.W.-

What ingredients do you need for the perfect opening sentence?

—Carter Bellamy, Fort Wayne, Ind.

Don’t call me W.A.W. That’s actually Waxing All Wrong, an unaffiliated blog that has everything to do with waxing, and nothing to do with writing.

This is an inexhaustible topic. You’ll find dozens of ways on how to “do it right,” but none on what *not* to do. Since I’m not Writing All Right, you can look for the “Opening Sentence Ingredients” elsewhere. Here’s a blacklist for things you don’t want in an opening sentence.

1. Banal Brevity

(waits for you to look up “banal” – ok, good)

Don’t shoot for the pithy one-worder or the half-sentence. Why can Dickens get away with an opening sentence of “LONDON,” and you can’t? You’re no Dickens. You are not clever if you think “less is more” and fart down something like “Smokehouses,” or “The falling of the rain,” or “Nothing beside remains.” The discriminating reader will see right though your fraudulence.

2. Truths Self-Evident

There’s a way to state the obvious with mastery, and unless you do just that, don’t do that. 

“Yet another day passed where I’d had enough with my boss.” — How insightful. No one thinks that.

“I loathe Mondays.” — Really? Thought everyone liked those.

“The sun arced ‘round the ridge, just as it always had, just as it ever will.” — Nuh uh.

3. Dialogue

Of all tactics, this one might be the most well-known. Doesn’t stop amateurs from disregarding the rule. Unless one of your characters says something that will stop both the revolutions of planet Earth and the bowels of one who binged on Taco Bell at 2 AM, then don’t use dialogue for your first line. Heck, even if it’s a great line, use it later.

4. Mundaneness 

The opening sentence need not be something you can slip into anywhere else in the story unnoticed. “Some character did some thing and yeah.” You’re setting a tone with style, not with slumber. You are allowed to jazz this up. There’s a profoundness in the placing of that opening line. Ignore it at your peril. If you’re going to write boring sentences, write them in the middle of the book, where the flames of spite will eat them at the last.

5. Backstory

“Whaaa? But how are you supposed to introduce the events of the story?” Let the events themselves introduce the story. I do not care that “High King Regurgitus was born on the Nocturnalpictus of Seventhember, thus granting him legendary power, all of which sets in motion our story.” Start too far back, and you won’t have anything at all. Need proof? Star Wars hit the scene halfway into its story, right on the money. What? It’s a movie? Yeah, well, whatever…

6. An answered question

It was where the dead buried the dead who buried their dead.” Cool, that’s great: another dumb zombie/vamp/undead novel that I really don’t need to know more about. Come on, if you’re going to propose something like that, leave room for wonder, not blunder.

7. Character description

He pressed a firm handed to his barrel chest, peering through penetrating hazel eyes into a lake that reflected an empty soul within a chiseled frame.” Pardon me while I reverse my dinner in hopes of purifying this sentence. This is one of the weakest of weaksauces. It doesn’t even have the consistency of sauce. This isn’t so much clever or cheating. Unless the description plays a key part in the story (and even then, that’s borderline emesis), don’t start off that way. You know, just don’t start off that way, period.

8. Introduction

Our story begins in—” 

“Here is the tale of—” 

“Lemme tell ya about a story about—” 

You’ve seen these lazy attempts before. At least I have. I failed them when they were written back in Creative Writing for Kindergarteners. These don’t even qualify as weaksauce, vacuous as they are. May God forgive your talentless soul should such opening sentences issue from your pen.

What else do you try to avoid in your opening sentence?

Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com) and followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong). He was both the Best of TIME® and the Worst of TIME® in the same TIME®.

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3 comments

  1. I actually like #6 a bit…not the particular sentence itself (not a huge zombie fan) but the structure of the unanswered question piques my interest, as a reader. Though I am morally opposed to literal questions with question marks at the end being the first line.

    Also, agree about hating character descriptions. I was listening to an audiobook the other day–a book published with a pretty big publisher–that, within the first chapter, the narrator said “I hate books where there are long character descriptions about a girl’s height, and hair color, and skin tone. They’re so boring. So I’m not going to do it.” I was mentally cheering, looking forward to what was going to happen next. “But since you’re burning with curiosity, I’ll tell you what I look like anyway.”

    It wasn’t the first line, but it was early enough into the book that I turned it off and committed to never listening to another word of it again.

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