Starting Off Dead

The easiest way to get me to buy a book is for the first few sentences to blow me away, or for the premise to be amazing, or for your name to be J.K. Rowling or Neal Shusterman.

So, to this end, when I’m not already a fan of the author and the premise isn’t an immediate hook, I have a little test I will do, which while not at all fair, is fun and a learning opportunity. And the test is this: if I read the first sentence, or the first page, and my eyes don’t bounce off once, then it goes on the to-buy list.

Again, super unfair. But it is an interesting exercise. And, by doing this sort of test a lot, I’ve noticed a few reoccurring methods of structuring the beginning sentence from book to book.

So, for fun, and to perhaps make you view stories a little more how I do, here are some of the most common things I notice in opening sentences. And a brief explanation of why I think they show up so much.

Oh, also, these rules apply to a shocking number of short stories.

  1. The use of the word “dying,” “die,” “dead,” “corpse,” or “kill.” The reason is obvious, as those sorts of words grab the attention of the reader easily. We all react to mentions of death. Oddly, words related to sex are less common by a wide margin.
  2. The character mentioned by their full name and title. Such as “General Jerald Hill, Second Moon Battalion…” This way works because it is a fast and clean way to give a sense of the story’s protagonist. Sometimes this is a bit blunt of a method, but you can’t argue with results.
  3. A hard focus on an object. Just wham: the back of a chair. Or a knife. Or a file on a desk. These hit hard, forcing a picture into the head of the reader—which can work to ground them to the tale, as you expand outward with descriptions.
  4. Landscape overview. Here comes the location of the story, with little context—yet. Another type of “wham,” but more restrained. A moody way to go about opening a story.
  5. Context-less dialogue. The more mysterious or shocking the better. This can be a little alienating since we don’t know who or what is talking, but it can work well sometimes. Especially if the speaker gets revealed quickly afterward.

Taking all I’ve observed together, the main thing I’ve learned is you can tell a lot about an author’s intentions from their first sentence. They are a chunk from the soul of the work. They show mood and style. A good opener is enough to draw in the reader by itself alone, while a wrong step right at the beginning may as well be a catastrophic trip and fall.

And I don’t know about you, but I want to put my best foot forward. So I’ll continue to study the odd and wonderful ways authors try to pull you into their worlds with only a sentence.

Special thanks to: Bob GerkinCollin PearmanDylan AlexanderJerry Banfield, and Michael The Comic Nerd. 

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