10 Ways to Write Your First Sentence

THE FIRST SENTENCE (.doc file)

Give yourself a day to come up with 10 first sentences. One of them may even lead to a story.

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A fairytale beginning

First, write the first sentence of an actual fairy tale. Write it from memory. It doesn’t have to start with ‘Once upon a time’, but it might.

Example:  Once, in a dark forest, lived a widower with two children. Their names were Hansel and Gretel.

Now take that sentence structure and modernise. Change names/occupations of the characters. Change setting.

Example: Once, in an apartment block, lived a woman with nine offspring. Their names ranged from Git-over-here-now to If-you-don’t-shut-up-I’ll-knock-your-bleeding-heads-together.

(Now that you have begun a story with a fairytale paragraph, you may choose to write a story in that vein, with a clear moral. What story did you pick for your first sentence? I picked Hansel and Gretel, so I might be writing a story about some children who run away from their hopeless mother into greater danger. My story won’t have a happy ending. Or it might. You can change it.)

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Establish the weather

First, write about today’s weather. Nothing else. Just the weather. Because it is so common to begin with the weather, you will be original with your use of language. For example, create  a new word or make use of imagery. Make it easy on yourself. Start with a weather report (which will be boring as hell) and go from there.

Example: After an early frost, it was a beautiful day. The winter sun went down just after five o’clock. The shortest day has just passed. (Boring and over-written.)

Early frost, beautiful day. At five, the sun disappeared. The shortest day ended. (Tighter. Would suit a story written in prose poetry. Still unoriginal. O, this is hard.)

A frost-caked lawn and a day wrapped in sky-blue. At five it was all over. Another day gone, another year older. (After  I’d started this sentence I knew I was writing about someone’s birthday.)

Now, turn this into an ‘active’ opening by combining the weather with an action or two.

Example: A frost-caked lawn, and a day wrapped in sky-blue. By three o’clock I still hadn’t been surprised. After school  I walked home, let myself inside. Nobody jumped out from behind the drapes.  Two weeks later, Mum remembered she forgot and shouted me a Happy Meal. She was too late. The day I turned eight, I aged an entire year.

(Chances are, by now you’ve got an entire story in your head. If not, you have several choices. You could spend the rest of your story on a single scene that happened that day. You could jump forward a number of years and write about another incident that the narrator connects with this one. You could write a character study of one of the other people who cropped up. You might go back and edit out the weather. Or, you might see that the weather has some significance.)

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Establish time and place

First, describe a place where you have holidayed.

Example: As a kid, holidays were spent at Kaiteri Beach in Marlborough, New Zealand. There’s a golden sandy beach, many nearby walking trails and a city of tents and caravans.

Now, combine this sentence with an action. Turn on the nearest telly. Take the first person you see. What are they doing? This’ll do for your action. Give a sense of character and place. (I turned on a cartoon. A princess was climbing the stairs to her castle.)

Example: A princess never packs lightly for two weeks at Kaiteri. First, she requires a flattering swimsuit for sunbaking. Hot pink. Suncream, mosquito repellent, and sturdy boots for hiking. Pale pink with sequins. A princess likes her privacy. She pitches a marquee in the picnic oval and beside that, a smaller, squarish tent for ‘ablutions’.

(If you’ve ended up with an unlikely character in an unlikely place, you’ve actually got a pretty good start to a story, with ready-made conflict.)

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Establish character

First, write about the most interesting person you’ve had contact with in the last 24 hours. If you’ve been a hermit, make it a week. A month, whatever. Pick one or two things that stand out about this person.

Example: Our septic tank inspector is a tall bloke called Kevin. He has a florid face and talks shit.

Now take that sentence and turn it into a hybrid/action paragraph.

Example: Septic Man turned up again yesterday for the quarterly inspection. His real name is Kevin, which is exactly what he looks like. A Kevin, with florid skin. I call him Septic Man like he’s some sort of super hero, but I might be talking him up. He’s tall, all right, and he talks shit. There, the similarities end.

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Combine character and setting

First, take a famous person and give them an ordinary name. I’m thinking Monica Lewinsky, but I’ll call her Mabel Smith. When you think of this person, what are they doing? Turn that into a sentence.

Example: Mabel Smith licked her lips and readjusted her dress.

Now, where are they? Rewrite this sentence, letting the reader know where we are. Be specific. This lends realism, even if no such place exists.

Example: In the second-floor cleaner’s closet of the James Herriot Building, Yonkyville, Mabel Smith licked her lips and readjusted her dress. (I started with the White House, Washington, but I don’t really want to write a story about Monica Lewinsky. She is simply my muse.)

Now you’ve got a character and setting, something story-worthy will happen. Something will go wrong. This will lead to a change in this character’s outlook on life.

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Start with direct dialogue

First, switch on the talkback radio. (I tuned in to Sydney’s 2UE.) Wait for a disgruntled person to ring in. (Shouldn’t take too long.) Wait for them to come out with a cliché. Write it down  inside speech-marks. Give this character a made-up name. If you can’t think of a good name, take a minor health condition and change/add one letter. That’ll be the last name. First name, one of your grandparents.

Example:  “I blame the government,” announced Rex Warty.

Follow it with an action which places him in a specific setting.

Example: “I blame the government,” announced Rex Warty, as he slid his empty schooner across the bar.

(You’ll now have an opening line which raises lots of questions. Who is your character talking to? What just went on? What’s about to happen?)

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Start with indirect dialogue

This time your character is a younger person. Go to YouTube and find one of your favourite clips. Take one of the comments. Paraphrase it. Tell us what they said. (I found: musicman02 1 week ago @Andyc18 I have a theory that roger federer is actually Tarantino.)

Example: Andy had a theory that Quentin Tarantino was actually Roger Federer.

Now, follow this first sentence with a juxtaposition, or something unexpected.

Example:  Andy had a theory that Quentin Tarantino was actually Roger Federer.  He also suspected  his mother was his uncle dressed in drag. Come to think of it, he’d never seen Mum and Uncle Horace together in the same room.

(Now keep thinking, about how the first and second sentences might be related. What might your character do next? I’ve ended up with the beginnings of a good conflict. If my narrator has never seen his uncle and his mother together it’s probably because they don’t get on. Why not? What sort of problems will this cause? And I’m away…)

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A story in a sentence

Remember the time you thought you saw a ghost? (A monster will do.) Summarise the entire episode in one sentence.

Example: Several years ago, at a YHA castle in Scotland, I hoped to see a ghost. I was bitterly disappointed when I only heard it sing.

Now, continue with another very short sentence which says something unexpected/unrelated.

Example: Several years ago, at a YHA castle in Scotland, I hoped to see a ghost. I was bitterly disappointed when I only heard it sing. I also lost my glasses.

(Now think further, about how these two unrelated ideas might be related. This may provide you with the bones of an entire story.)

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So-boring-it’s-interesting

First, open a newspaper and pluck out an unlikely sentence for a story.

Example: QUENTIN Bryce has cut short an overseas trip in the expectation that Julia Gillard will make a visit to Government House to call an election within days.

It’ll be written in journalese. Change it to make it sound like fiction. You may have to change the tense. You might change a few details at random, to make it more (or less) specific. Change names.

Example: Caramella Montino cut short a trip to the supermarket in the expectation that her nephew would make a visit to Holyrood Hollows to convey news of an election.

Now, follow this with a very short sentence. The opposite has happened.

Example: Caramella Montino cut short a trip to the supermarket in the expectation that her nephew would make a visit to Holyrood Hollows to convey news of his election. The nephew never arrived.

(Now I have many choices. Is the story about Caramella or her nephew? Why did he not arrive? Is this a story about an election? If so, was he elected? Is he disappointed? Elected for what?)

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start with the philosophical

First, find an interesting quotation on one of those online quotation sites.

Example: ‘Every artist dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures.’ – Henry Ward Beecher

Now change it a bit.

Example: Every home handyman dips his brush in his own soul. He lays down tarps, sands between coats. A man’s home is his castle.

Now write a sentence or two which proves the exception to some rule or truism expressed in your quotation.

Example: Every home handyman dips his brush in his own soul. He lays down tarps, sands between coats. A man’s home is his castle.

But there was no sugarcoating this one. Jeffrey stood in the centre of the living room and surveyed his work. No doubt about it. He’d just painted the walls a lumpy, baby-shit brown. Even the wife’s antique Persian rug hadn’t escaped a splattering.

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Now you have 10 story openings. One or two probably jump out at you as potential for an entire story. If not, try ranking them. If you still have no joy, try the exercise again on a different day.

Give yourself permission to scrap this opening later, or modify it during the editing stage. No opening is perfect. All you need is a start.

Have fun. IT DOESN’T MATTER WHERE YOU START, ONLY WHERE YOU END UP.

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Try also: the #WritingPrompt hashtag on Twitter.

One response to “10 Ways to Write Your First Sentence

  1. this was incredibly helpful,Thanks!