Write Better — The First Sentence

Honest tips on writing better, stronger stories.

If your first sentence sucks, so will the rest of rest of your story. (If anyone even makes it that far.)

Your first sentence is the most important of your story. It’s the impetus for everything that follows. It should encapsulate your narrative. It should seduce your reader. A good first sentence won’t always make a story, but a bad first sentence will break it.

Consider Moby Dick. “Call me Ishmael.” Phenomenal first sentence. One of the most memorable in English literature. Possibly the only reason anyone’s ever read that book. Have you read it? It’s awful. It’s boring. There’s a whole chapter on the science of whales. They don’t even get to the damn ship until chapter 22. Then it’s basically 100 chapters of moody stares. I regret every moment with that book, Herman.

But I digress.

A first sentence is ineffective for one of two reasons:

  1. It’s poorly written. (i.e. it’s a run-on, it’s confusing, etc.)
  2. It’s a wonderful sentence, but it doesn’t accurately set up the story.

I see a lot of terrible first sentences. Even when researching for this piece, many articles about first sentences had awful first sentences. You know how long I sat on this article’s first sentence? A month. Christ, it nearly gave me an ulcer and I still only give it a 7.8.

If your problem is reas0n one — that your first sentence is poorly written — my advice is delete it. Delete it. Then rewrite it. Then delete that and rewrite it again. Don’t look at it for 13 days. Then you’ll delete it and rewrite it again, but at least you’ll be closer to seeing why it sucked.

If your problem is reason two, you’re an egomaniacal twat. You’re too proud. You’d never admit you have a shitty first sentence because you worked too hard making a sentence that sounds nice. But as the bumper sticker says, Don’t cling to a mistake just because you spent a lot of time making it.

So, what makes a good first sentence?

Drive. Desire. Action. Your first sentence should be a prophecy we see fulfilled.

“They shoot the white girl first.” -Toni Morrison, Paradise

I’ve never read the book, but fuck me if I don’t want to know what happens next. Why’d they shoot the white girl? Why are they shooting at all? Who’s they? Why the white girl?

I’m also a sucker for pithy intros. Especially today. Attention spans are short. Media and content are coming from every direction. Hook me.

Notice Morrison didn’t say, “They were shooting the white girl first.” “Shooting” in that case is a gerund. Fuck gerunds. They’re passive. They necessitate more words. They’re annoying. Give me active sentences.

Try this…

Start every story with “I want…” or “He/She wants…”

Every story is simply the journey of a desire. It’s how a character (or characters) struggles to attain something they want. So start simple.

You see, there is absolutely nothing interesting about having something. But wanting — that’s compelling. It’s why babies will cry for an hour about a toy they want. And it’s why, once they have it, they drop it after 30 seconds. It’s why a couple that locks eyes across a crowded turns them on, and why those same two are sexless after 20 years together.

Pretend your first sentence is “I wanted to run.” Tell us why. Even better, change that first sentence to “I ran.”

  • I ran because I couldn’t stand to be near him.
  • I ran, but the lion ran faster.
  • I ran. I had to if I wanted to lose 20 pounds before my wedding.

Why couldn’t you stand to be near him? Why were you being chased by a lion? Why did you want to lose 20 pounds for your wedding?

Your story should answer the call your first sentence set up.

Any questions, write them in the comments or email me. Push the green heart, follow me, and do the rest of that validating bullshit.

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