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3 Things You Need in Your Opening Sentence

In movies the story begins on a regular day until two minutes in, when an inciting incident causes our hero to begin their journey. In genre fiction you need to hook the reader in the opening sentence. That hook can begin with an action or thought that expresses the story question while giving us a feel for time and space.

Let’s look at some examples:

From True Grit by Charles Portis:

“People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.”

In this example, the author lays down the story premise in the careful voice of the protagonist. You get a sense of time and place from the words she uses. You also already know what is going to drive this story - a fourteen-year-old girl leaves home to avenge her father’s death.

Teachers love to use this example to show an opening that draws the reader in and gives you the character voice.

From Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells:

“Sidda is a girl again in the hot heart of Louisiana, the bayou world of Catholic Saints and voodoo queens.”

This sentence gives us a sense of place. The use of the word again, makes the reader want to know why and read more.

From Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

“In the early afternoon on a Saturday in June, Jack Kennison put on his sunglasses, got into his sports car with the top down, strapped the seat belt over his shoulder and across his large stomach, and drove to Portland - almost an hour away-to buy a gallon of whiskey rather than bump into Olive Kitteridge at the grocery store here in Crosby, Maine.”

The longest opening sentence and this length is generally frowned upon in fiction, so it tells us something about the narrator. It also says a lot about Jack Kennison and makes us ask the question, why does he not want to run into Olive Kitteridge?

These three very different authors give us three very different opening sentences, but there are things they have in common. They get us to ask the story question, tell us a bit about the protagonist and give us a sense of time and place.

Does your opening sentence do this?

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