Beyond headlines the first sentence dominates.
In fact, it’s probably got the singular power and responsibility to hurl the reader into the story than a headline. The headline captures the attention. The first sentence keeps it.
Great writers know this. Look at David Sedaris’ first sentences for an example.
“My father always struck me as the sort of man who under the right circumstances might have invented the microwave oven or transistor radio.”
“It is his birthday, and Hugh and I are seated in a New York restaurant, awaiting the arrival of our fifteen-word entrées.”
“There are, I have noticed, two basic types of French spoken by Americans vacationing in Paris: the Hard Kind and the Easy Kind.”
“When Hugh was in the fifth grade, his class took a field tip to an Ethiopian slaughterhouse.”
“I was on ‘Oprah’ a while ago, talking about how I used to love too much.”
“As a favor to my pastor, Carlton Manning has hired me to work at his service station even though I am unable to drive.”
“Shortly after my mother died, my sisters and I found ourselves rummaging through a cabinet of papers marked “POISON,” and it was there, tucked between the pages of a well-worn copy of Mein Kampf, that I discovered fifteen years’ worth of her annual New Year’s resolutions.”
What’s compelling about these first sentences is their sense of suspense or their invitation to learn about an interesting character.
- Carlton Manning, someone who doesn’t drive, works at car service station? That’s ripe for irony, which is usually comical.
- Something about Sedaris’ dad makes his son think of him as an inventor. What exactly? The story will tell us.
- Fifth graders trotting out to a facility to see how cattle are killed for consumption? And this is a field trip?
However, these first sentences are second-rate when compared to Sedaris’ greatest first sentence, which comes from his book Naked. The story is called “The Women’s Open.” Here’s the first line:
“My sister Lisa became a woman on the fourteenth hole of the Pinehurst golf course.”
Whether that appalls you or appeals to you, you’re going to find out what happened. And like a truly great first sentence, it won’t meet your expectation. You will step back and marvel like you just witnessed a magician pull off the impossible.
How Sedaris Writes Great First Sentences
I don’t know David personally, so the following tricks are pure speculation. But I have no doubt he would agree–or at least say I was close.
1. Find the hook. What draws people? Sex. Violence. Strange circumstances. Bizarre people. Surprising statements. Controversial positions. Of course you won’t know the hook until you’ve written the first draft, which brings me to the next point.
2. Get rid of the first paragraph. Or two. Often, just to get started, we will throw everything on the table in the first couple of sentences. This is a tendency from school to explain what you are about to tell the reader. Break this habit if you want to seduce a reader with a first sentence.
3. Read lots of Sedaris. Or Truman Capote. Hemingway. Any great writer of fiction or non-fiction.
4. Type out a list of great first lines. Make this a long list. This will get you to concentrate and absorb the elements of the sentence. But it will do something else. See next point.
5. Review your list every time you write a first sentence. Need I say more?
Do you read David Sedaris? Do you agree with me that line is his best first sentence? Can you offer a better one? Have any more tips for writing great sentences? Let me know in the comments. Looking forward to hearing from you.