Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Killer Opening: In Search of a Story's First Sentence

By Shaun McCoy

Sometimes you want to sneak up on your reader. You stay carefully understated as you suck them into your narrative, inch by inch. At other times you want to smack them in the face with a double shot of verbal espresso—and for that you need a Killer Opening.

When the world was young, writers could begin with their stories with their search for inspiration.

Sing to me, Muse…

No longer. These days we have to keep that bit private. The first thing our readers get to see is our actual inspiration, and it had bloody well be inspired.

As a brief refresher we'll go through a short history of good openings.

Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' son, Achilles.

From the hag and hungry goblin, that into rags would rend ye

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…
-Charles Dickens

Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.
-Margaret Atwood

So how do we create such interesting openings? Practice. Trust me, anything can be practiced.

One way you can come up with a good opening is by creating a formula. One of my favorite formulas is to add an idea that evokes strong emotion to something that causes personalization.

Cannibalism+Personalization="That's right, I ate him."

Love+Personalization="I love Richard Pilkington more than I love frosted flakes."

You can even go "hog wild" and add everything together: Love+Cannabalism+Personalization="I loved Richard Pilkington. I loved him more than frosted flakes. That's why I had to eat him."

That exercise is pretty easy because your opening can be about anything. Creating a high caliber, rock 'em sock 'em beginning with this method can be problematic, however, when you've already got the story in hand. While starting the plot of a story in medias res is ok, learning your literary skills on the fly is just going to waste material. It would seem wise, then, for a writer to get good at such openings before they commit one to paper.

So how do you practice making a Killer Opening for your pre-existing story? I often daydream about how I would open stories that were already written.

F#$@k the Muse's hundred epithets, Achilles was pissed, and he wanted my head.

The first time I saw a man more angry than a god was on that day when Achilles fought the river.

Like anything else in writing, there is skill involved in finding a good opening. After some work a writer can get the knack of creating a sentence that immediately inspires intrigue. To get a better understanding about what word combinations can be exciting you can also flip through your previous writings and take your own sentences out of context. Do any of them work well as an opening? For an example we'll take one from this article.

Trust me, anything can be practiced.


Alex said...


Great advice. Your help desk is full of great writing, as well as advice.


Ginny said...

Shaun, you have a distinctive voice. I'm a fan!

Anonymous said...

The formula is not bad...I will use it in upcoming articles that I am writing for a magazine.