How much emphasis do you place on the first sentence of your writing?
My mind has been on this topic since reading a recent comment by one of this blog’s readers. In this short-attention age, in which Nicholas Carr has shown our minds are remapped to make long reading more challenging, and hyperlink-chasers hover on blog posts for only seconds before moving on, is it imperative to grab the reader with an unorthodox opening?
I would argue yes. I’d also argue that sentences like that 45-word monstrosity above must be killed, but that is another post.
Look at some of these classic openings:
- On the 29th of July, in 1943, my father died. — James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son
- “You must not tell anyone,” my mother said, “what I am about to tell you.” — Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior
- I have been reading books on meditation with great enthusiasm since 1975, but have not quite gotten around to becoming a person who meditates. — Anne Lamott, “Why I Don’t Meditate,” Yoga Journal
- The story begins in bed, in one of those sleepy troughs between the crests of sex. — Albert Goldbarth, Many Circles
In each case, the author teases out a detail while making you want more.
As a hard-news journalist, my “lede” sentence followed the inverted pyramid model of getting the who, what, when, where, why and how up front. But feature writing is a whole ‘nother beast. I recently came across a celebrity profile article I wrote in 1991. Here’s the opening (yes, it’s two sentences):
“One day she’ll be President.” So says Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, of the largest cult figure of the 1980’s, and next to Saddam Hussein the biggest publicity subject of the 199o’s, Madonna.
Of course, in that case the reader likely already was invested, because it was clear from the headline and illustrations what subject the reporter was writing about. You can’t make that assumption in every case.
Sometimes it’s better to leave them guessing for a bit, which is why in a recent creative non-fiction essay I wrote the opening that prompted last week’s blog comment:
I smiled at the delight of receiving two extra cherries, which almost made up for the fact that the monkey was blue.
Writers of blogs are lectured constantly on the importance of a catchy title, something that grabs your attention. The headline “How to Tame the Kitten in Your Pocket” prompted me last week to click on a Stephanie Wetzel blog post. It proved worth my time and I tweeted it.
But once I’m there, it’s not the headline that keeps me reading, it’s the opening. The first line is the most important part of that opening, at least to me.
How influential is a piece of writing’s opening to you? What focus to you apply to the first lines of your writing?
(Tip of the hat to memoirist and writing instructor (and friend) Sara Mansfield Taber, who has compiled an impressive list of opening lines, including the bulleted ones above.)