Your guide to writing the first sentence of a novel, speech, pitch or screenplay.
A great first sentence opens the door, sets the stakes, triggers your curiosity, and gives you a reason to care. A great first sentence wins you over as a reader and causes you to root for the writer. A great first sentence does the work of the entire book in a single strike. A great first sentence makes you feel like you’ve been reborn inside the story. A great first sentence flips a switch in your mind to cause you to wonder.
If you fail to ignite the mind of the reader, they may tolerate you for a bit, but they will never truly love you. Get it right, however, and they will forgive your every future fumble.
So how do you do it?
This post offers writers three main techniques (with examples) to set you down the path of inventing a marvelous first sentence. You might love one of the techniques and hate the others. You might combine or invert aspects of each to create your own path. Finally, you might do none of this, but somehow through a process that is both mysterious and plain, reading this will get you going and you somehow will just know what you want to do. Either way, I’m rooting for you. You’re the writer our world needs next.
A few techniques:
Technique 1: The run-up.
In this technique, you just start writing any way you can. You build as you go and warm up as you write and then finally, when you have enough power and momentum you burst through the dullness of mediocre work and write a transcendent moment we’ll always remember. Then—and this is the truly important part—you go back and cut all the warm-up and build-up and have the reader start at the moment you were at your most interesting.
In filmmaking, we have the phrase “cut to the chase” because no one wants to watch your character get her keys, tie her shoes, get to the car, back out of the parking spot, and then start the car chase—nope—we just want her to get moving. We seek the pursuit. Get us going. As readers, our minds are creative enough to fill in any gaps. And if certain gaps remain—all the better. Gaps, done with grace, trigger even more curiosity.
Inciting curiosity is the entire task of a good opening line.
A mental model for this approach is the long jump, where the athlete runs, gaining momentum until she is at a full sprint, then jumps to sail through the air to land in the sand pit. You can apply this image to writing a first sentence by cutting out the run-up and starting your text at the jump. You still have to do the run-up to get yourself going, just delete it once you get to the jump.
How to write it: Write until you get somewhere fantastic and worth the reader’s time, then cut all the build-up it took to get you there.
Ray Bradbury could have started with an alarm clock ringing, got his fireman out of bed, walked him to the bathroom, brushed his teeth, put on his clothes, ate his breakfast, and made his way to work. But no, instead we start full-blaze. And we love him for it.
Pynchon opens with a bullet and it sets the tone of the story and the terms of our engagement with the text. We will have to grapple with what we know, what we don’t know, and put in some work (wonderful, pleasurable work) as we read.
This is not actually the first line of Moby Dick, but we remember it as such. Instead, there is a long pile of frontmatter that starts before the story: some 15 pages of warm-up and quotes and “extracts” until we finally start for real. Do we remember any of this? No. We only remember this fantastic opening zinger. Call me Ishmael.
With this line our curiosity kicks in… wait, is your name actually Ishmael, or do you just want us to call you that? Are you making a biblical reference? Is this a codename? Why no last name? Are we familiar with each other, and you’re telling me we are finally close enough that I might stop being so formal? Or are we thieves or spies? Or did I make a mistake and you’re correcting me? Or have we just met and your directness is put forth as such to tell me you are the type of person who operates on your own terms…
This great line ignites curiosity and gets the story moving.
He could have started with the character mulling around, grappling with the hard decision to leave, or the complicated circumstances, but no. Instead, Murakami gives us the character on the move. We can almost feel the character grab the cash and then in that moment we wonder… wait, what else did he take? Murakami, of course, gives us the answer next. And at that point, he’s got us. We’re in.
Technique 2: Lub-Dub
Jokes have a structure that mirrors the two-stroke beat of our hearts: the set-up and the punchline. The Lub-Dub rhythm is how we write jokes. This 1–2 rhythm appears in Shakespeare’s iambic patter and in the boxer’s jab-cross combination. It is the alley-oop in basketball and the arching toss of the tennis ball in a power serve. It’s the seesaw of expectations.
For the task of writing a brilliant opening line, we can borrow the structure of a joke, which is really a microcosm of all story: Set-up & Payoff.
The set-up lays out the rules. In the set-up we declare what is true and what is normal and how the world works. This, of course, is a fake-out. The whole point of a set-up is to give us something to subvert in the payoff.
For a first line in a novel, speech, or movie, we don’t have to try to land a laugh, but instead, alter or invert the expectations of the reader so that she or he is left thinking—this is interesting… What is this all about? What will happen next? Where is this going? What does this mean?
How to write it: start with the set-up, construct the rules of the moment, then reveal this shared assumption (agreement, pact) to be false.
The entire first line reads: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
The series of two-part self-contradictions lets you know that this tale is about that exquisite, complex, aching human feeling that happens when more than one thing is true at the same time. This line isn’t trying to be funny but instead uses the structure of a joke to deliver the poignancy of truth. This is a great opening line.
And, yet mostly, we only remember the first bit “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” —and maybe that’s enough.
We start with “uneasy dreams” as the set-up only to get the payoff that he is indeed an actual insect. It’s not a dream. It really happened. Set-up, payoff. Beautifully done.
This example gives us the set-up & punchline structure most directly; there is even a semicolon in the middle to guide us. The sentence works because it is true, sad, and funny all at once. It also makes it clear the story we are about to read will describe to us an unhappy family and are agreeing to this from the beginning. We might look for moments of happiness where we can find them, but we know the sad work ahead from the beginning. And… it makes us wonder… exactly how are they unhappy?
What an opening! A joke, yes, but also a whole story in one line. The character goes on to both be very bad and to find redemption, salvation, and forgiveness. The “almost” in “almost deserved it” fits us all. We all almost deserve the bad things that happen because of the bad things we’ve done, but secretly we also all hope and strive for a happier ending.
The sentence starts out normally, then turns upside-down. It tells us right away that this world is different from the one we know — but only slightly. It makes us curious. It makes us wonder what else will be different and what it will mean. It also hints at the total authoritarian control (not just one clock, but the clocks) and the re-ordering of something that seems like it was already ordered (time).
This killer first sentence uses the structure of a joke with a double payoff. We start off talking about summer, then get the jolt of “electrocuted” and then instead of coping with that horrific phrase, we then switch to the solipsism of personal reflection. This is a lub-dub-dub. And it’s first-rate.
In an inverse of the classic lub-dub structure, where a seemingly normal day takes an unexpected turn, this sentence starts out horrific and ends up quite normal, almost sweet. And this initial creative act holds us for a moment and makes us wonder what else is coming our way. Also—why?—why would he think of this specific memory at that moment?
Technique 3: “Telempathy”
Telempathy is a made-up portmanteau word-sandwich of a concept that combines telepathy with empathy. The idea is to transmit a feeling to another person’s brain, not merely a message, and have them begin to investigate how they really feel.
Start with an emotion, but make us wonder how we should really feel, how we should receive it. Destabilize us with our own inner sense of morality and yet keep us curious. We know we are starting to feel something, but aren’t quite sure what that feeling is…
This is the hardest style of opening line to write, but do it well and you will haunt a reader’s consciousness for a lifetime.
Mother died today… More than a few bottles of ink have been spent on working out the best way to translate this seemingly simple line. Do we go with a cold, literal reading of “Today, Mother is dead.” Or try to get the feeling behind Maman (which is not the too childish Mommy, but also not the too formal Mother)? Should start with the word Today or the word Mother? Should we soften is dead with has died? Read Ryan Bloom’s take on translating this famous sentence in the New Yorker. Any way you translate it, however, the technique still holds. The sentence gently stuns as it triggers our curiosity, and starts us wondering… wait… how do we feel?
You want to take this statement at face value, but there is a vague feeling, a sense, that there’s more to the story than the story we’re about to hear. The ache is there, certainly, but we don’t know yet what to believe or trust. People who are truly sad rarely start this way. They try to look on the bright side and say things aren’t so bad or they suppress or hide their emotions. It perplexes and confounds to say it openly like this and makes us curious about what actually happened and why—even as we do our best to relate, connect, and yet also simply feel that it might indeed straightforwardly be true (even as we start to doubt). This is a marvelous sentence. Confounding. Brilliant.
What does it mean to be unseen? Is Ellison hinting of the Supernatural? No, instead he gives us something much closer to home. The narrator is, of course, in a very real way, also invisible to the reader—we don’t see him, only imagine him based on the words he says that we read on the page. Ellison’s technique of factual empathy (via the imaginative-construction that happens through the act of reading) is marvelous. Indeed we do not see him. We cannot. We can only read and imagine. And yet we want to. We keep reading to try to find a way forward, for the character, for ourselves, and for humanity. This is an an A+ first line.
When you ask people about famous first lines from novels, this one comes up. But why? First, it’s funny. Austen is telling a joke and it’s all the better because she gives it to use through an purportedly earnest narrator. So you’d expect this opening line to fall under the lub-dub technique. It’s classic set-up and payoff. But that’s just the surface. What makes this line work is the emotional thud of realizing that all people experience the world through their own subjectivity and even as we might imagine the wants of others as they relate to our own wants, other people, well, they have other ideas.
Kansas already feels remote to a New Yorker, but somewhere that people from Kansas call “out there” must be very far removed. What might we expect to happen in some place called “out there” especially in a “non-fiction novel” entitled In Cold Blood? Capote uses lonesome to describe the location. And there is something about lonesome that hints of what’s to come. He didn’t say “sparsely populated” or “rural” or “mostly uninhabited” he chooses lonesome. Like the lonesome cowboy of popular song, this area’s separation from a more connected world will make use long for our own home. Even as that home, where we came from, the person we were when we started to read, starts to disappear the longer we spend with this story in this lonesome place.
Now that you’ve seen these three techniques, give it a try. The run up is the easiest way to get going, you just have to have the guts to cut your own warm-up after you’ve written it. Only the brave can do it. But you’re brave. I believe in you. Also, check this out—take heart—creativity cannot be killed. It cannot dry up. It cannot be extinguished by overuse. In fact, the more you dig into the well of creative production, the more creative you will become. So cut those warm-up words knowing that you carry an infinite supply of additional words with you at all times. Take as much as you like, but only give your readers the best, most effective, most beautiful sentences.
Next try the Lub-Dub. Take a boring first sentence (yours or someone else’s) and re-write it as a set-up and payoff. Give us reality, then subvert it. Give us the transformation of the character (and the reader) in a single sentence. Give us the universe in a moment. Finally, try telempathy. Offer us emotional complexity and then only partially equip us to understand. Cut all explanation and just give us the heart of it. And do it in a way that we cannot help but feel that singular, confounding, brain-cleaving truth.
I’m using cleave here in both senses… the first definition of cleave is to cut apart. The second definition of cleave (miraculously) is the opposite: it means to stick together. An effective Empathy Telepathy first line will split your reader’s mind and then piece it back together.
A few more exercises to try:
- The Love Hate: Re-write opening sentences others have written that you hate and make them wonderful. Try out the different techniques. Sometimes it’s easier to edit and rewrite if it’s not your own work. This, by the way, is a great technique for editing your own work—imagine, when you edit that you are not yourself but someone else. Put on an imaginary outfit and pretend you are a brilliant, caring, demanding, but supportive, editor who wants nothing more than for your text to live up its greatest potential… someone who believes in you and wants to help you become your most magnificent self.
- The New Style: Find opening sentences you love, identify the technique used, and then attempt a new first sentence that uses a different technique.
- From Worst to First: Try to write the worst opening sentence you can. Something terrible. Now start to change it. What will it take to turn it into something spectacular?
- Wrong or Right? Say something wrong, but as if it’s true, and then in the most subtle way, cause the reader to think about what she or he actually thinks about this…
Thanks for reading.
Here’s a few more articles…
Art of Story
- How to Give a Toast
- How to Write a Joke
- Words Matter: Towards Exceptional Content
- Tell a Four-Word Story
- Structure of Story Reading List
- Design Starts with Story
- How to Design Emotional Products
- Augmented Imagination
- How to Design for Near-Instant Wow
- How to Create a Story Map
- How to Create a Color Story