how to write first sentences

The experts say a first sentences must grab a reader and draw them into the story. There are all kinds of technical tricks you can (should) use. All manner of necessities.




But I think there is another angle a writer can consider.

The start of a book is the start of a relationship. So to me the most important thing about it is that it be genuine. Those first sentences tell a reader if the book is a kindred spirit or not. In some ways, the story itself matters less to a reader than the way it is told. You want to be using your real voice from the beginning. You want to have your favourite words right there to flare against, dissolve into, your reader's soul. Because we all like clever books - but we love books which get into our soul.

One way to think of it is that your first sentences could be like your smile. There's so much you can tell about a person from their smile. It's a language that speaks to instinct, to shared humanity. Writers are advised to start their story as close as possible to the moment of change, and technically that's good advice - but, from a different paradigm, I'd add that you should start as close as possible to the heart of your story.


Think of your protagonist, and smile. How does it feel? Is it happy? Tranquil? Sad? Tight and frustrated?  Let the shape of that smile slide into the shape of words and onto your page.

Figure out what is the most important thing about your story, and show that in your first sentences.

It's advice I'd give anyone about life and relationships, really ...

Let your words and your way of being communicate from the start about your important things. 

Never mind what the experts say about how you should technically manage those first meetings, what you should be wearing, how you should colour your hair or what car you should drive. My favourite writers break the technical rules but absolutely win my devotion because I love the heart and soul of their story. That story becomes a friend because of what it is on the inside. Same with my favourite people.

Today someone reminded me what is important to me. And I put that into my story. The relationship won't be overt to readers, but the spirit will be there. I think that's what it's all about. The spirit of relationship with a story, a person, an idea. 

People love your books ... or your religion, or your values, or you ... when you open a space of belonging for them in that relationship too.


8 comments:

  1. First off, I love to hear that a beloved song inspired you to start a new story. I love the magic of music.

    But mostly I had to comment to thank you for the way you are able to infuse poetry into your writing advice. I take notice of it because it stands out from all the rest. My own words can't express how much I appreciate your bringing me back 'round to the heart of my story. This post is a gift.

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    1. A lot of my writing is inspired by music, or helped along in some way.

      Thank you so much for your kind words :-)

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  2. Thank you so much for this space of yours. I am whole heartedly smitten with your words. I look forward to getting your books:) XO

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    1. Thank you, its so lovely to receive such gracious feedback.

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  3. Thank you. As I send my manuscript off to agents with only the first few pages for their evaluation, I've found myself more than worrying about its "smile". But this post has given me some reassurance. The most recent edit I did with it was regarding its first line. Like many other first drafts, I ended up having to delete the first few pages, as it was the practice writing before the story took off. Which meant I had to delete its original first line. I reintroduced this one back into it, and I felt really strong about it. It's the essence of what I'm trying to do with this manuscript. It is the genuine voice. So thank you.

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    1. I'm so glad :-) And best of luck with your manuscript!

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  4. I read this and nodded my head, not as a fellow writer (because I don't really consider myself a writer), but as a reader. You have it so exactly right...the start of a book is the start of a relationship. I love that. If I don't connect within the first few pages, I will probably never connect. And it is SO true.. it's not so much the story, but how it is told. The stories and poems that I cherish the most are from writers who have a beautiful way of saying things that make me see the world differently.
    What you have so eloquently expressed in this post is the reason why I felt a connection to your writing almost immediately, not so very long ago. What a gift you have!

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  5. Much to ponder! I need to make my novel's beginning stronger, but in my own way, by making it more itself in its essence. It has been eluding me how to do this, and it occurs to me that my story centers around the river, and the story itself is like a river--small, trickling and winding at its beginnings, widening and gathering momentum as it flows south. Thank you for giving me another way to look at this!

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