Flashing Your Readers

How much emphasis do you place on the first sentence of your writing?

My mind has been on this topic since reading a recent comment by one of this blog’s readers. In this short-attention age, in which Nicholas Carr has shown our minds are remapped to make long reading more challenging, and hyperlink-chasers hover on blog posts for only seconds before moving on, is it imperative to grab the reader with an unorthodox opening?

I would argue yes. I’d also argue that sentences like that 45-word monstrosity above must be killed, but that is another post.

Look at some of these classic openings:

  • On the 29th of July, in 1943, my father died. — James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son
  • “You must not tell anyone,” my mother said, “what I am about to tell you.” — Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior
  • I have been reading books on meditation with great enthusiasm since 1975, but have not quite gotten around to becoming a person who meditates. — Anne Lamott, “Why I Don’t Meditate,” Yoga Journal
  • The story begins in bed, in one of those sleepy troughs between the crests of sex. — Albert Goldbarth, Many Circles

Whenever I travel I seek out zen gardens (like this one in Montreal, Quebec), but like Anne Lamott meditation does not automatically follow.

In each case, the author teases out a detail while making you want more.

As a hard-news journalist, my “lede” sentence followed the inverted pyramid model of getting the who, what, when, where, why and how up front. But feature writing is a whole ‘nother beast. I recently came across a celebrity profile article I wrote in 1991. Here’s the opening (yes, it’s two sentences):

“One day she’ll be President.” So says Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, of the largest cult figure of the 1980’s, and next to Saddam Hussein the biggest publicity subject of the 199o’s, Madonna.

Of course, in that case the reader likely already was invested, because it was clear from the headline and illustrations what subject the reporter was writing about. You can’t make that assumption in every case.

Sometimes it’s better to leave them guessing for a bit, which is why in a recent creative non-fiction essay I wrote the opening that prompted last week’s blog comment:

I smiled at the delight of receiving two extra cherries, which almost made up for the fact that the monkey was blue.

Writers of blogs are lectured constantly on the importance of a catchy title, something that grabs your attention. The headline “How to Tame the Kitten in Your Pocket” prompted me last week to click on a Stephanie Wetzel blog post. It proved worth my time and I tweeted it.

But once I’m there, it’s not the headline that keeps me reading, it’s the opening. The first line is the most important part of that opening, at least to me.

How influential is a piece of writing’s opening to you? What focus to you apply to the first lines of your writing?

(Tip of the hat to memoirist and writing instructor (and friend) Sara Mansfield Taber, who has compiled an impressive list of opening lines, including the bulleted ones above.)

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

12 Responses to “Flashing Your Readers”

  1. We can’t forget that every sentence should, appropriately, be just as appetizing as the first.

    When anyone can (and does) write, when catchy headlines are easy to generate and intriguing topics are effortlessly made up, we can’t afford not to have every sentence of writing provide some type of value.

    Right?

    • I absolutely agree, Tanner, I would never suggest we should not put care into every sentence. That said I find that, at least for myself, I can’t always give every sentence equal love, particularly when on a deadline (as is often the case with blog posts). In that case, I prioritize, and the opening gets more love (as does the closing, ensuring I connect with the opening as much as possible).

  2. Absolutely! Thanks for pointing out the importance of a good blog title, it’s something I shirk on. However, most often, it’s the first line that grounds me in a piece. If I don’t feel that first line I’m probably not writing. Thanks, Patrick.

  3. I gave a stab at Carr, but somewhere around the line “Once I was a scuba-diver in a sea of words”, something inside me curled up and withered, and I haven’t picked up Shallows since. I’m certain the book had plenty of good things to say and a walloping of hard research to boot, but as someone who’s been on the internet (on the forums, on sites, researching, reading, skimming) for nearly a decade, I just don’t feel the conclusions Carr draws.

    Yes, attention span is an issue, but as adults who have lives to live, we don’t have time to, as he put it, “hours strolling through long stretches of prose.” Reading 500 pages of small print text per week in college certainly made sure I have rock-solid skimming habits. Concentration, once you’re past a certain age, is hard not because of the internet or television (though it does take an effort to switch mediums, I’ll give him that), but rather of the fact we’re pressed for time and busy.

    We want the information (or the story) that doesn’t waste our time with meandering fluff. We want the story to convince us to keep reading, because when the reader commits to a story, that’s 5-15 hours of his life, right there. When I’m skimming tag articles, I tend to skim the first few lines and move on, so yes, a hook (or a clear introduction sentence that presents a topic I care about) is necessary. It’s not a cheap gimmick (unless it’s utterly misleading), but smart writing.

    A reader, unless she’s your mom or best friend, needs to be convinced to care. This has been the case since writing began and good hooks are present in literature from all centuries in one form or another.

    • Thanks for this thoughtful comment. Speaking only for me, I know my reading attention span is shorter than it used to be, and it’s frustrating. Nick had some science explaining his theories as to why that may be the case, but I think there are probably plenty of reasons beyond the Internet.

      Absolutely a good opening is smart writing. The quotes above are not recent, and you can go back farther — “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” etc. — but I am willing to speculate that for bloggers it’s even more important. If I pick up a book, I’m giving the author more than a sentence. It’s harder to do that for a book, where I am considering giving 5-15 hours, and presumably some money as well.

  4. Yes, Patrick, once again you’ve hit on an essential element of writing. The opening sentence is a promise and a lure. Blogs need the same. Some opening lines, which I love from fiction…

    “On the white beach, ground-up coral and broken bones, a group of the children are walking.” Margaret Atwood, Oryx And Crake.

    “Was there no safety?” Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

  5. “The opening sentence is a promise and a lure.” Well put.

    Good examples as well, Deborah!

  6. Wow, the pressure…how should I start this comment!?!?🙂

    Seriously, I agree that the opening of a work is vital. Perhaps this realization (in the form of an excuse) is why I sometimes stare at a blank page, over-thinking the writing project that lies ahead of me. I’d be curious to know your thoughts about skipping over the opening of a piece at the onset of the project, getting to the meat of it first, then coming back to the opening later.

    Thanks for this post. Great examples!

    Bob

    • As a reporter I almost always found I had to rewrite the lede once I was done with the story. As a blogger I almost always rewrite the first sentence when I’m otherwise done. Part of that rewrite often involves reducing the word count by half; my first draft sentences are often quite lengthy and full of clauses (like this one).

  7. I think it is very important. Now, am I good at doing it week after week? No. That is why I find that using a good quote to start with does the trick for me. I also have a hard time with titles week after week, on top of dealing with contractors, work and trying to put my house back in order and making baby steps into my next artistic foray. So even though I am pretty good at clever titles, I find my blog titles to be more fact based. If I had more energy, I’d worry about it. For right now, its a miracle if I get a post up twice a month. :-p But I still plug away because I feel there is power in the written word. Its not the medium I am most comfortable with … and that likely shows. I just do my best!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Creativity Tweets of the Week — 8/5/11 « The Artist's Road - August 5, 2011

    […] “The First Sentence as an Amuse-Bouche,” Therese Walsh, Writer Unboxed: To quote Therese, “Let the first sentence offer an impactful and authentic taste of what’s to come, an amuse-bouche that teases what the meal that is your story will offer and leaves the reader hungry for more.” (Related post: Flashing Your Readers) […]

Chime in!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: