O is for Opening Sentences

Artwork by Tom Torre (@CopernicusNerd)

Artwork by Tom Torre (@CopernicusNerd)

By Jennie Goloboy


Let’s say you’ve written the entire novel. Now it’s time to go back and fix the opening! But what should the opening sentences look like? If you study lists of favorite opening sentences (like this one, for example), you’ll see some effective ways to get the story started.

1. They start with a clever epigram indicating what the book will be about.

“Happy families are all alike…”

“It is a truth universally acknowledged…”

2. They start with what the late Blake Snyder called an “Opening Image.” Snyder was the author of a screenwriting book called Save the Cat, which is about his method of structuring a screenplay. Even though written for screenwriters, his book is useful for novelists who are having trouble with plotting. Snyder suggested that the expectations of the reader are set by the opening image, and that this image should reflect the setting and tension of the book. In other words, these are images, but they’re not static.

“A screaming comes across the sky.”

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

3. They introduce the lead character, doing something that demonstrates the character’s nature.

“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

4. They toss us right into the action, leaving us curious about what’s going on.

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

Let us know about any favorites in the comments!

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  1. Amelia Loken on November 16, 2013 at 10:47 am

    Since you’ve been mentioning camels lately, this is the opening paragraph from the Elizabeth Peters novel, “The Last Camel Died At Noon” :

    “Hands on hips, brows lowering, Emerson stood gazing fixedly at the recumbent ruminant. a sympathetic friend (if camels have such, which is doubtful) might have taken comfort in the fact that scarcely a ripple of agitated sand surrounded the place of its demise. Like the others in the caravan, of which it was the last, it had simply stopped, sunk to its knees, and passed on, peacefully and quietly. (Conditions, I might add, that are uncharacteristic of camels alive or moribund.)”

    I love the character of Amelia Peabody and how she will state something in such a round-about, Victorian Era, absolutely British way.

    Thanks for the great advice!