Famous First Words: The Power of a Strong Opening Sentence
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens, 1859
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
1984, George Orwell, 1949
Call me Ishmael.
Moby-Dick, Herman Melville, 1851
There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C. S. Lewis, 1952
There’s something about a power-packed opening line that entrances a reader. It can set the mood, reveal treasured insights into the main character, raise intrigue, provide humor, surprise, and invite your readers into your story.
When I was finishing my latest release, All Through the Night, I glanced back through the first chapter, sensing that something was off. The pacing was fine, the setting was good, and I loved the mood, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was wrong. With a sigh, I shoved away from my computer, determined to take a break. Turning to my bookcase, I grabbed the newest story I was dying to read: Becoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan.
I flipped to the first page.
From the beginning it was the Great Lion who brought us together.
That’s a great line.
I pursed my lips and reached for my worn copy of Pride and Prejudice.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
Excited, I began yanking volume after volume off my shelves to examine each book’s opening lines. All the Light We Cannot See, Redeeming Love, Anne’s House of Dreams . . . my office was soon filled with open volumes. I turned back to my computer and stared at the first page of my story.
That’s what was missing. An intriguing opening sentence.
All Through the Night originally opened up like this:
Eh. It’s okay, but it tells the reader nothing about Cadence. It does nothing to introduce the tone of the book. To make the reader curious. I then tweaked it to this:
Cadence Piper walked down the darkened street, breath ragged.
Better, but not there yet. I needed my readers to feel Cadence’s fear. To know she was in a dangerous place. After trying several different lines, All Through the Night’s opening paragraph is this:
Cadence Piper walked down the darkened street, her booted footsteps clicking loudly against the gritty walk.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.” I will fear no evil. I will fear no evil . . .
Cadence Piper walked down the darkened street, clutching her reticule to her middle.
The lovely thing about power-packing the opening sentence of your story, and I would say each chapter, is that there’s a variety of sentences to choose from. Each of them can be used to reveal a unique aspect of story depth to your reader.
1. Action Sentence
An action sentence shows movement, something happening, but the action should point to something intrinsically important to the character’s situation or hint at the conflict that is coming.
When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.
Firebreak, Richard Stark
2. Character Sentence
The character sentence establishes a character in our mind, but also tells us something about him or her. It makes us curious. It should be written in such a way to make us lean in and subconsciously say, “Tell me more.”
When the blind man arrived in the city, he claimed that he had traveled across a desert of living sand.
The Brief History of the Dead, Kevin Brockmeier
3. Dialogue Sentence
Dialogue is one of my favorite ways to open a story. It immediately pulls the reader into the thick of the action. Be careful to quickly establish who is speaking and give the reader some sense of time and place if you open with dialogue. They will want to feel grounded to something to continue reading.
He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eyes that’s halfway hopeful.
Underworld, Don DeLillo
4. Thought Sentence
The thought sentence can be a bit trickier to pull off but is highly effective if it fits your opening scene. The higher the stakes, the more desperate or quirky or shocking the thought.
Don’t fail. Tonight of all nights, don’t fail.
Engraved on the Heart, Tara Johnson
5. Statement Sentence
This is the most wonderfully broad and yet creatively diverse of all the opening sentences. A statement can be curious, self-deprecating, thoughtful, philosophical, matter-of-fact, humorous, or mysterious, as long as it fits the tone of your book, invokes curiosity, and reveals something about your character or setting.
I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.
The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula Le Guin
All children, except one, grow up.
Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie
Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.
Back When We Were Grownups, Anne Tyler
6. World-Building Sentence.
This is an opening line that transports the reader into a new place. It can be a galaxy far, far away or the peaceful shores of Prince Edward Island. It sets the reader on new soil, with fresh sounds, smells, and wonders as it tiptoes them into the story.
Far out into the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy, lies a small unregarded yellow sun.
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
A fun exercise is to take the current opening line of your work in progress and rewrite it in all six of these sentence types. You may be surprised how much it changes . . . and how your own creativity is charged as a result.
When in doubt, don’t be afraid to start with a classic.
“Once upon a time . . .”
About the Author
Tara Johnson is a passionate lover of stories who uses fiction, nonfiction, song, and laughter to share her testimony of how God led her into freedom after spending years living shackled to the expectations of others. Tara is the author of three novels set during the Civil War: Engraved on the Heart, Where Dandelions Bloom, and , which releases in January 2021. She is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers and makes her home in Arkansas with her husband and three children. Visit her online at .
About All Through the Night
With her stammering tongue and quiet ways, Cadence Piper has always struggled to be accepted. After the death of her mother, Cadence sets her heart on becoming a nurse, both to erase the stain her brother has left on the family’s honor and to find long-sought approval in the eyes of her father. When Dorothea Dix turns her away due to her young age and pretty face, Cadence finds another way to serve . . . singing to the soldiers in Judiciary Square Hospital. Only one stubborn doctor stands in her way.
Joshua Ivy is an intense man with a compassionate heart for the hurting and downtrodden. The one thing he can’t have is an idealistic woman destroying the plans he’s so carefully laid. When the chaos of war thrusts Cadence into the middle of his clandestine activities, he must decide if the lives at stake, and his own heart, are worth the risk of letting Cadence inside.
Everything changes when Joshua and Cadence unearth the workings of a secret society so vile, the course of their lives, and the war, could be altered forever. If they fight an enemy they cannot see, will the One who sees all show them the way in the darkest night?