The first sentence problem. Advice for the birds.

Writing the first sentence can be a problem for some writers but it is an obstacle that can be overcome. Sometimes you just need to calm your mind and look off to the horizon. Other times, you must let it go.

A first sentence is a pitch to the editor, agents and most importantly the readers buying your story. It needs to both engage and be unique with its commentary of the narrative. Easier said than done. 

Some writers have told me in the past that you should not begin a narrative without being able to capture the essence of the tale in one sentence like a logline. Though I think allows focus, it should never hold hard and fast. A logline, of course, would be a horrible first sentence but the distillation process is apt. 

Many writers get stuck on that perfect opening sentence and paragraph. I say screw it. Begin with plain words and descriptions of events that allow you to get on with composing the story. Write the tale, get to know the characters better as they get fleshed out, allow for twists and stakes to appear that were not planned, and create an ending that fulfills the payoffs promised to the reader from the plot elements and dole out rewards/punishments deserved to the characters and subplots. Now, you are ready to tackle the first sentence during the second draft.

The first sentence should hint at or directly depict important elements of character, theme, tone, mood, and plot. It does not need to address all of them. It can simply address one but it must also pose a question that the reader wants to discover the answer to through flipping the pages. Questions are not simply proposed. A writer should place intrigue. How? By manifesting a sentence that with “What is that?”  “Who is that?” “How is that?” “Why is that?”

If writing in first person, I think a statement that depicts the protagonist’s self-perception, as this is the filter for the entire story, fares fairly well to augment the proposed question to compel the reader forward. Third person allows for a commentary upon the fictive world where the conflicts are to occur, the struggles within, a framing event that sets off the motion of the plot in a novel fashion, and can get into the thoughts of a character where unusual observations can inflict a question.

And if you can, use the best possible creative imagery that can set a reader’s attention. If you wish, you can generate a metaphorical scene that stands in for the fictive world or protagonist, set it in an environment that reflects the psychological condition of the character, and also sets the plot in motion like a police detective who finds a backpack filled with stones by a swamp that leads him to a dead body.  A left behind backpack=detective if he feels burdened by duty, loss, or anything. A swamp is as setting that furthers the notion of the detective’s notions of self-worth or the working/living conditions he finds himself mired in and it lets him come across the dead body=plot inciting incident.

By the way, reread the first sentence to many of your favorite books and you will see how they reflect on the entire novel. That’s why sometimes you must finish writing the book to begin it.

Happy writing and reading.


Joshua Lee Andrew Jones of Wayward Raven Media

PS: list of awesome first sentences:     

Imbalance occurs. Balance is restored.