The Opening Sentence, the First Paragraph, and the First Page
I have a dark confession to make. The best part about writing the first line is that I got you to read this one. Who doesn’t like a good confession story? I believe the commonality between humans is the inexcusable desire to feed one’s curiosity. There is nothing better than to dig your nose into other people’s business or watch your archenemy squirm in his seat because he knows you know something about him you shouldn’t. You have their pulsing heart in your hand and the decision to either give it back or squeeze out its juices is on you. Okay, I know that got a little dark, – hence dark confession – but hopefully, I’ve captured you at this point to discover the nature of why you were forced to read this memo of mines.
Capture. It’s a writer’s favorite word. If you’re not a writer, don’t worry, we aren’t kidnappers of the sort, but we do enjoy toying with your minds. As a fantasy fiction writer, I enjoy writing and reading stories that steal me from reality and keep me on my toes. However, the only way to keep myself and to keep readers engaged is to hook them at the beginning of the book or the story. Opening sentences, first paragraphs, and first pages are the doors into another world.
A story is no story without an opening sentence. How would it begin? You can choreograph a dance to tell the story, but some of us don’t dance. We write. We use words, either orally or written to tell a story. How should a story be told if the first paragraph doesn’t push a reader to absorb the first page and give them a reason to turn the page? How can we writers persuade a booklover to buy our book whether they’ve read the summary or not without regretting it once they get home?
The best quality of literature I admire is how literary writers can capture anyone with their opening sentences, first paragraphs, and first pages almost effortlessly. Let’s explore some famous openings from well-known literary writers such as Kali Fajardo-Anstine, Angela Carter, Toni Morrison, William Shakespeare, and Amy Tan and how they managed to spark our curiosity. There are many ways to create a good and effective opening and after reading so many amazing works, I’ve spotted them and tried it in my writings. One of those ways, is to make your reader ask questions and pull them into the reality of the character(s). You can do this by making the opening sentence short and sweet or a long pathway leading to an interesting fact or a discovery. I remind myself all the time that saying less screams louder than saying too much.
Let’s take “Sabrina & Corina” from Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s collection Sabrina and Corina. The opening sentence goes like this, “My grandmother called with the news.” (25) Yep. That’s it. Immediately, questions pop into your head. What news? Is it good or bad? Why was the grandmother giving the news? Who is the narrator? This short and sweet sentence got her readers to keep reading to find out what was happening and how the narrator would react. And once you find out that Corina is the narrator and her cousin Sabrina was found dead, it only adds fuel to the reader’s curiosity. How did she die and how will Corina respond? Applaud, Fajardo-Anstine has captured you.
You can try a lengthy opening sentence which I described as a pathway leading to an interesting fact or a discovery. Within this long-winded sentence, a writer would try setting the tone and the mood for their reader to feel as they’re entering the world of the character/narrator. So, whenever I would try this, I would use my thesaurus and dictionary and focus on word choice.
Take Angela Carter’s short story “The Bloody Chamber.” This dark and deadly romantic story begins like this:
“I remember how that night, I lay awake in the wagon-lit in a tender, delicious ecstasy of excitement, my burning cheek pressed against the impeccable linen of the pillow and the pounding of my heart mimicking that of the great pistons ceaselessly thrusting the train that bore me through the night, away from Paris, away from girlhood, away from the white, enclosed quietude of my mother’s apartment, into the unguessable country of marriage.”
A mouthful, right? But marvel at Carter’s beautiful word choice that not only sets this young giddy mood, but also let’s the reader know the setting, the gender of the narrator, and to show the narrator is moving towards something bigger than herself which she still is uncertain about. This ‘unguessable country.’ See how the word ‘marriage’ dangles at the end of this long opening sentence and is revealed as the main focal point for the story and the narrator? A reader is now left wondering how old is she? Who is she marrying? Carter captures the reader to feel happy and uncertain and to discover what will happen in this new experience for the narrator.
Another way to capture a reader is to give an opening sentence, the first paragraph, or a first page a strange scene or an action scene. A strange scene would be something out of the ordinary. Something that also provokes questions but gets the reader up and moving with the character/narrator. Let’s take the amazing Toni Morrison’s opening sentence and paragraph from her book Song of Solomon:
“The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock.”Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon
Okay. What does she mean by ‘fly’? That word alone makes this sentence strange, weird, and random. You’re immediately given this image of a man promising he will fly, but how will he do this? What gave him the idea to do this? This sentence also makes a reader question the narrator’s sanity. Yet it works. It hooks you in. Then as you continue to read the first paragraph it says:
“Two days before the event was to take place, he tacked a note on the door of his little yellow house:
At 3:00 p.m. on Wednesday the 18th of February 1931, I will take off from Mercy and fly away on my own wings. Please forgive me. I loved you all.
(signed) Robert Smith,
Morrison had a great way of writing her books. Instead of beginning the book with the insurance agent’s letter, coming from his perspective, she introduced it from an outsider’s point of view. An onlooker who would be our eyes also discovering and witnessing this horrific event that occurs a few pages later. And yet, you’ve been captured by her choice of arrangement and are now curious about the rest of the book.
I had mentioned how using an action scene for your first paragraph or page can help capture your readers. How about we ask Shakespeare to help us out with this? Here is the first page of the Tragedy of Macbeth, Act 1:
Thunder and lightning. Enter three Witches.
When shall we three meet again?
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
When the hurly-burly’s done,
When the battle’s lost and won.
That will be ere the set of sun.
Where the place?
Upon the heath
There to meet with Macbeth.
I come, Graymalkin.
Fair is foul, and foul is fair.
Hover through the fog and filthy air.
This opening portion of Macbeth places the reader and the audience in the moment something had occurred or just occurred. The witches are plotting something, and Macbeth is the center of it. Although, we don’t know what just yet, we know that witches are evil and can never be trusted. Opening a story with the so-called villain or potential conflict for your character(s) can get your readers squirming in their chairs because they know something the main character does not. I tried this method while writing my young adult fantasy book The Fairest. I had specific characters know something terrible was approaching without informing my main character. This built high expectations for my readers on Wattpad because now they’re looking forward to the pay-off or the great response by the main character further on in the book. This was a huge challenge for me because the last thing a writer wants to do is to disappoint their readers. So, opening strong and, in their face meant I had to make sure the ending ends with a bigger bang.
Hey, I hope I’m not boring you! I am almost finished so I can set you free. Now there are other ways you can capture your readers in relation to first paragraphs and pages. Some writers use prologues, flashbacks, dreams, poetry, song lyrics, journal entries, and even other stories to trap their readers and to prepare them for what is to come.
One literary author who I admire and enjoy her works is Amy Tan. My favorite book of hers is the famous The Joy Luck Club. Her style of writing is always very eloquent, cultural, thoughtful, and mind-bottling. Here is the first page of The Joy Luck Club and the introduction to Feathers from a Thousand Li Away:
“The old woman remembered a swan she had bought many years ago in Shanghai for a foolish sum. This bird, boasted the market vendor, was once a duck that stretched its neck in hopes of becoming a goose, and now look! – it is too beautiful to eat.
Then the woman and the swan sailed across an ocean many thousands of li wide, stretching their necks toward America. On her journey she cooed to the swan: “In America I will have a daughter just like me. But over there nobody will say her worth is measured by the loudness of her husband’s belch. Over there nobody will look down on her because I will make her speak only perfect American English. And over there she will always be too full to swallow any sorrow! She will know my meaning, because I will give her this swan – a creature that became more than what was hoped for.”
But when she arrived in the new country, the immigration officials pulled her swan away from her, leaving the woman fluttering her arms and with only one swan feather for a memory. And when she had to fill out so many forms, she forgot why she had come and what she had left behind.
Now the woman was old. And she had a daughter who grew up speaking only English and swallowing more Coca-Cola than sorrow. For a long time now, the woman had wanted to give her daughter the single swan feather and tell her, “This feather may look worthless, but it comes from agar and carries with it all my good intentions.” And she waited, year and year, for the day she could tell her daughter this in perfect American English.” (17)
The parts in this book begin with a short story that could be a journal entry or a character’s memory about their life, their hopes, and their dreams of migrating to America. This particular passage is printed in italics which helps it to stand out and identify its importance to the part or the story as a whole. Using this way of capturing a reader is different and I enjoy experiencing something new when I read. Of course, so I can try it too. I wrote a few flash fictions pieces with poetry or a separate point of view before jumping to the overall story. I have come across many books today who use this method to set the tone or to drop a foreshadowing hint or clue or to inform the reader of important information. Some writers love opening their stories with the ending and taking their readers back in time to show them how the character/narrator got to that point of the story.
I have come to learn, whichever way I decide to open my story, I must be confident about it. And above all, to have fun and enjoy the journey. So, I’m telling you today to seek a way to capture your readers so they can continue to turn pages. I know I kept you a while to explain the best quality of literature I admire the most with you, but I want to encourage you to keep writing and feel every single word, sentence, paragraph, page, character, and so on and so on. Because if you feel yourself being captured by your own work then others will also feel it and be captured too.
Now I release you.
NOTE FROM WRITER:
I wrote this for an assignment for my Fabulism class at University of Baltimore. I hope you enjoyed. Please comment below on your thoughts about capturing your readers. What method do you use? Do you focus more on the first sentence, first paragraph, the first page, or all three?
Thanks for reading,
WRITTEN BY LEQUITA C. HARRISON, 2021