Confessions: How I became adddicted to opening sentences

Throughout the course of my first few stabs at amateur writing, I have developed an all-consuming obsession, one that might be considered treacherous by many an English teacher (at the high school level at least) and creative writing adepts.

I am now hooked on first sentences.

Rather than reading the summaries on the dust jacket or analyzing its cover, I now base my potential interest in a book by reading its first, single sentence.

Opening sentences must be able to be appreciated for themselves, regardless of the context of the story that follows. A good opening sentence must have meaning, a core purpose and direction to follow. It must be able to hold its own. Afterwards, once the reader is hooked to the story, once the tone is set, he will realize this sentence’s significance on the greater scheme of the story. The beauty of a well-constructed first sentence is that it draws links to events to come, events the reader is unaware of, and rather than dismissing them as inconsequential, the reader will consider them mysterious, beautiful, important.

A book’s opening sentence must be appealing, suggestive, like a sideways glancing smile or an under-the-table game of footsy. It must flirt with the reader.

I realize the flaw in this way of thinking. I know that a first sentence is no valid indication of the remainder of the story. Awful stories can have great opening sentences, and for that matter, great stories can have awful opening sentences too.

However, I cannot shake this habit, and, for better or for worse, it is affecting my own personal writing process. When writing for myself (rather than for someone else’s deadline, a habit all aspiring writers should develop) I now obsess over the opening line of my spontaneous writing drafts. I fine-tune and polish these sentences until they are perfect: stylistically sound, balanced, delicate, mysterious and prophetic and beautiful.

It is only then do I realize that I have no characters to build from, no plot to develop or setting to think up. My notebooks are full of these sentences. They are written with beautiful penmanship, and, in sad contrast, tentative plot ideas follow in haphazardly scribbled writing, trying to keep up with the grandiose sentence ahead like an unwanted kid following his older brother onto the street.

It comes down to choices. The first sentence is the product of its author’s choice. It is how the author chooses to present himself to the reader, and if used effectively, can in turn reflect how the author chooses to part ways with the reader. It is the author’s pitch as he tries to sell his story and the author’s as he convinces you to come back. A book’s first sentence is what the author can truly call his own.

A first sentence can make for an author to be remembered. Or forgotten.

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