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How to Write an Opening Sentence

Monday, January 14, 2013

When I was a 25-year-old Senior Editor of The Mother Earth News, I did a lot of rewrite editing. And when I say rewrite editing, I mean burn-the-original-and-start-over editing. This was back in the day when John Shuttleworth (Mother's founder) was alive. Shuttleworth believed in total rewrites of everything.

John was a stickler for what he imagined was inventive, original writing, and I got in trouble countless times for being unimaginative. He pilloried me if any two articles had the same sort of introductory statement. For example, I made the mistake, once, of starting two stories with "If you're like most people [rest of sentence]." Shuttleworth stormed into my office quaking with anger. "Starting any story that way is idiotic!" he barked. "Doing it more than once is criminal. Don't ever do this again."

I got lots of practice, at The Mother Earth News, writing leads to stories (my own stories, and others'). I found it was difficult to come up with truly original introductory paragraphs. Still is, sometimes.

I've noticed that other people have trouble with leads, too; even experienced professionals.

Not long ago (and by the way, "Not long ago" is actually not a bad way to begin any piece of writing), I read three books on fiction writing by Don Maass: Writing the Breakout Novel (2001), The Fire in Fiction (2009), and Writing 21st Century Fiction (2012). The first two are decent (if unremarkable) craft books. The third is well above average. But the books have something to teach (inadvertently) about introductory sentences.

In Writing the Breakout Novel, four of eleven chapters begin with a question. In The Fire in Fiction, six of nine chapters begin with a question (and one other chapter has a question as its second sentence). The prevalence of chapters (and chapter sections as well) that begin with questions is abnormally high in those two books. If you look at the Gotham Writers' Workshop's Writing Fiction, you find eleven chapters written by eleven different authors, and not a single chapter begins with a question.

I suspect that whenever Don Maass gets blocked, he unblocks himself by asking: "What question am I trying to answer here?" Then he starts the chapter (or section) with that question.

Or at least, that's what he used to do.

By 2012, Maass abruptly (and conspicuously) abandons the question-crutch. In Writing 21st Century Fiction, not one chapter begins with a question.

Starting a piece of writing with a question is not always a bad thing to do. But beware, it's done a lot. It's overdone. My advice: Don't go there.

Starting a piece of writing with "If you're like most people," or "Most people would agree that," etc., is also overdone. It's trite. Don't go there.

Ditto "There are those who say [whatever]."

Starting with a famous quotation: Sometimes works. More often than not comes off sounding trite.

How should you begin a piece? Let's start by taking a look at some of the chapters in the Gotham Writers' Workshop book, Writing Fiction.

Alexander Steele's chapter, "Fiction: The What, How and Why of It," starts with: "Hello, you look familiar."

Brandi Reissenweber's "Character: Casting Shadows," begins with: "When I taught creative writing on a pediatrics ward at a hospital I met a long-term patient, a thirteen-year-old girl who . . ."

Valerie Vogrin's chapter on point of view: "When I consider a photograph of myself taken from several feet away I see a caricature . . ."

Chris Lombardi on Description: "About twelve years ago, my best friend was reading a draft of a story I'd written about a woman recently returned from years in a far-off country . . ."

Allison Amend begins her chapter on Dialog with: "I've been on a lot of bad dates. A lot."

Caron Gussoff on Setting begins with: "I've lived in seven different states in fifteen years."

Corene LeMaitre on The Business of Writing starts with: "My first memory of meeting with an editor is of being soaking wet."

Okay, I think you see the point. Professional writers, whenever they can get away with it, like to begin a piece of nonfiction with a personal aside or a personal story. But what if you're writing a piece that doesn't permit the use of first person? Consider giving a third-person account. "In September of 1992, two men wearing ski masks and full-body camouflage outfits walked into a pawn shop in Miami . . ." Malcolm Gladwell starts nearly every piece he writes this way.

You can start with a blanket statement. Chapter Nine of Sol Stein's excellent How to Grow a Novel begins with: "A writer cannot write what he does not read with pleasure." Chapter Fourteen begins with: "All fiction writers are emigrants from nonfiction."

Sometimes you can just be stark-blunt about what you intend to do. Chapter Eight of Stein's book, on "Getting Intimate with the Reader," starts out: "This is a chapter about opportunities."

If you're writing a blog post about unequal pay of women and men, you can start with: "This post is about unfairness." Just tell the reader what the subject is.

If you're writing about a difficult subject (for example, rape), you can begin: "Rape is not easy to write about."

Make an exaggerated statement, then tone it down. "In Prohibition days, alcohol could be purchased illegally on every street corner. Actually, that's an exaggeration, but in fact it's true that . . ."

Involve the reader in a bit of conjecture. "Suppose you were faced with the choice of living with cancer every day, or obtaining treatment that may or may not work, at the cost of becoming bankrupt and homeless."

Sometimes you can start with a statistic. "This year, over two hundred thousand Americans will be diagnosed with lung cancer."

Summarize the current state of affairs, then tell how it's changed recently. "Until recently, new MBA graduates could count on getting a job straight out of school. That's no longer the case."

Put up a straw man and knock it down. "The conventional view of [XYZ] is [ABC]." (That's the straw man.) "But it turns out the conventional view is wrong." (That's knocking it down.) Naomi Klein often uses this technique.

Bottom line: When you're stumped as to how to begin a piece of writing, consider doing one of the following:
  • Simply tell the reader what the subject is.
  • Make a blunt statement.
  • Cite a statistic.
  • Tell a first-person anecdote that's relevant to the subject.
  • Tell a third-person anecdote.
  • Put up a straw man, then knock it down.
  • Summarize a current state of affairs (or the conventional wisdom), then tell what's changed.
  • Summarize previous research, then tell what new research has found.
  • Involve the reader in a bit of conjecture.
  • Start with a quotation from a famous figure. (But beware of triteness.)
  • Commit an egregious exaggeration. Then explain what the (less extreme) reality is.
These aren't all the possible ways to start a piece, but if you're completely stuck, one of them should work. If not? Surprise the world with something outlandishly original. Don't be like most people. Don't just start with "If you're like most people . . ."


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