1. It may sound confusing, but first sentences aren’t the beginning of the whole story. They’re the opening of a specific part of the story, the start of a frame. Framing stories is easy to understand because we do it every day. If you were to tell someone about something that happened in your day, you may not want to start with the whole of your morning routine and every single one of your problems at the same time. You would locate the main story (for this example, say the main plot point is that you had a smoking relapse), and then you would frame your narrative to begin in a moment of stress (a cause and set-up), that led you to a consequential action (buy cigarettes). Your opening may then be simply ‘I skipped lunch to buy cigarettes,’ instead of vague explanatory sentences, or long needless exposition. If you feel you have ‘the world’ worked out but nothing seems to be moving anywhere, focus on presenting a simple narrative frame which includes an action.
2. I like to think of first sentences as vectors, as having both direction and magnitude. It may sound like a farfetched comparison at first, reductive even. After all, you could say that all full sentences have some direction, and some magnitude, since at a basic level, including a subject and a predicate dictates that something is happening to someone or something, and therefore will have, if subtle, consequences. But I mean direction in terms of scene movement, and magnitude in its opening presentation of your story’s ideas, questions or preoccupations.
3. They don’t need to be long and tedious. Try and resist the urge to force what may at first appear to you as a ‘big hook’. While denser first sentences do sometimes pack the main thematic questions within, you possibly won’t be able to establish every part of your stylistic and tonal choices in one sentence. It’s important that you don’t lose sight of its main objective to move the story and establish an opening point to the world. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, for example, starts with ‘A convenience store is a world of sound.’ Using a concise and clear style, Murata establishes a setting, a tone, and through framing a familiar space in unfamiliar terms, she depicts a character who will likely be detail-oriented and introspective, and, importantly, one who can see whole worlds in the ‘convenience store’, thereby showing us the power the store has over the characters throughout the narrative.
4. Good first sentences give us a sense of impending interactions. The fact that a story mentions that a character is preparing to go somewhere to meet someone, or is in a place that offers possibilities for interactions (even if not physical – like thinking about someone) or going to a bar, or class, underlines its importance to readers.
5. There is no need to feel paralysed if you think you don’t have a first sentence you love. It’s likely that when you started writing you didn’t have a strong sense of what your main subjects would be, or how you’d present them. That’s okay. Personally, part of the frustration and happiness in writing comes through controlling parts of a whole that doesn’t yet exist. But it won’t exist if you keep going back to change the first chapter, which may then require to completely change what comes later. Unless it’s a major plot change (ie. you decide to upturn the consequences of a central action), it’s better to keep writing, keep the story moving, and focus on re-writing the opening once you’re done with a draft.
Gonzalo C. Garcia is a writer and Senior Teaching Fellow in Creative Writing in the Warwick Writing Programme. His recent novel, We Are The End, is heavily influenced by his marked interest in Santiago de Chile, video games, digital culture and everyday constructions of narrative. It was nominated for the Edinburgh Festival First Novel Award 2017 and launched in October with Galley Beggar Press.
Directed by Sarah Moss, the Warwick Writing Programme at University of Warwick prides itself in having writing staff who not only teach but are also published authors involved in the writing industry and literary scenes. It has just opened an exciting PhD programme in Creative Writing (https://goo.gl/3pdiB9) alongside its internationally recognised flagship BA and MA programmes.
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