Opening sentences that hook the reader place every word on trial for its life.
Disclaimer: this is not a fly-fishing story.
But who doesn’t love a campfire story about the big one, this big, that got away? We snuggle closer to the fire, hanging on the storyteller’s lips, drinking in every word.
The art of good writing nestles in the many aspects of storytelling and narration, from word choice and language to metaphor, rhythm, and rhyme, to theme, tension, and topic. Every word counts. The art, and challenge, is to emotionally engage the reader, to make them care from the first sentence.
Touch the readers’ hearts, and you are halfway there.
Marketing research points out the importance of the title (be it an essay, article, or book), the image accompanying the writing (in books, the front, back cover, and spine), the author’s name (recognition value), the back-cover blurb, and the opening sentence and paragraph.
Hook the reader with your opening sentence, make them care, touch their hearts, then keep their attention by cutting away the fluff, keep wrapping up the tension.
By reading and rereading the work of authors and writers we admire, first for pleasure, then to learn, they can become our mentors. By paying closer attention to their writing, they can teach us possible ways to write. Stephen King calls it; imitation precedes creation. Don’t confuse imitation with plagiarism, far from it.
Don’t steal and borrow the masters’ words, but learn the possible ways to use language and how best to captivate your readers.
The opening sentence can be prose or dialogue, long or short, shocking or sweet, or be surprising — the goal is to intrigue the reader and makes them keep reading.
Let’s see how some do it (10 nonfiction, 10 fiction, & 10 article writers):
a. Ten nonfiction and memoir writers:
- Stephen King in On Writing: “I was stunned by Mary Karr’s memoir, The Liar’s Club.”
- Mary Karr in The Liar’s Club: “Not long before my mother died, the tile guy redoing her kitchen pried from the wall a tile with an unlikely round hole in it.”
- Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit: “She was the scientist’s favorite participant.”
- Dale Carnegie in How to Win Friends and Influence People: “On May 7, 1931, the most sensational manhunt New York City had ever known had come to its climax.”
- Brené Brown in Daring Greatly: “I looked right at her and said, “I frickin’ hate vulnerability.”
- Shawn Achor in The Happiness Advantage: “If you observe the people around you, you’ll find most individuals follow a formula that has been subtly or not so subtly taught to them by their schools, their company, their parents, or society.”
- Donald Miller in Building a Storybrand: “Most companies waste enormous amounts of money on marketing.”
- Carol S. Dweck in Mindset: “When I was a young researcher, just starting out, something happened that changed my life.”
- Trevor Noah in Born a Crime: “The genius of apartheid was convincing people who were the overwhelming majority to turn on each other.”
- Seth Godin in This is Marketing: “Marketing has changed, but our understanding of what we’re supposed to do next hasn’t kept up.”
b. Ten fiction writers’ opening sentences:
- Khaled Hosseini in The Kite Runner: “I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975.”
- F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby: “In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”
- Thomas Kenneally in The Daughters of Mars: “It was said around the valley that the two Durance girls went off, but just one bothered to come back.’
- Michael Ondaatje in The Cat’s table: “He wasn’t talking.”
- Ernest Hemingway in Farewell to Arms: “In the late summer of that year, we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.”
- Karl Ove Knausgaard in A Death in the Family: “For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can.”
- Alan Paton in Cry the Beloved Country: “There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills.”
- Tracy Chevalier in Girl with a Pearl Earring: “My mother did not tell me they were coming.”
- C.S. Lewis in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: “Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy.”
- John Grisham in The Firm: “The senior partner studied the résumé for the hundredth time and again found nothing he disliked about Michael Y. McDeere, at least not on paper.”
c. Ten writers of recent essays and articles:
- Tom Kuegler in A Five-Minute Exercise That Every Person Should Do Every Day: “I remember sneaking into my sister’s room as a child and reading her diaries.”
- John P. Weiss in Do You Make This Mistake in Conversations? “Years ago I suffered an exercise-related injury.”
- Michael Thompson in 6 Ways to Be More Likeable by Saying Very Little: “As a kid, I was told time and again that the fastest way to make a dent in the world was by leaving each person better than you found them.”
- Darius Foroux in A 3-Step Exercise for Identifying Your Emotions: “Do you ever feel misunderstood or underappreciated at work?”
- Nick Wignall in Three Common Bedtime Habits Destroying Your Sleep: “Let me guess.”
- Lucy King in Why You Should Chase Growth, Not Happiness: “ Have you ever felt stuck in a job, relationship or life?”
- Stephen Moore in To Do Better Work, Use Pen and paper: “Did you know that Paul Lauterbur’s first concept for the MRI machine was sketched on a restaurant napkin?”
- Thomas Oppong in For a Calmer, Happier Life, Stop Taking Everything So Seriously: “Do not take life too seriously.”
- Shannon Ashley in How to always Find Something to Write About: “I used to think that being a writer was a lot like being an entrepreneur or inventor.”
- Danie Bothe in Ten Commandments for Writer: “Imagine a world without words.”
It’s that simple and that complicated.
Read, write, live, then read and write and live some more. Rewrite. Reread. Hone your craft. Make your work as best you can (you owe it to your readers), then share it with the world.
It starts with the title, image, and first sentence. Place every word on trial for its life.
Grab the reader from the start: hook, line, and sinker!
© Danie Botha. 16 Nov 2019.
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