The Most Important Sentence


The most important sentence in any story or novel is the first one. That’s not to say a weak first sentence has always doomed a novel to ignominy. However, we live in a fast paced world where there are a thousand competitors for every minute of leisure time we have.

Should we watch TV? Go to Net Flicks for a movie? Play an online video game. Get out the Wii or the game boy? Check Facebook? Or read a story? If that story doesn’t gain the reader’s attention in the first bit, it will be tossed aside.

So what makes a great opening? It’s like the joke that ends, ‘But I know it when I see it.’ Elmore Leonard had a knack for openings. Take this one:

The war began the first Saturday in June 1931, when Mr. Baylor sent a boy up to Son Martin’s place to tell him they were coming to raid his still.

It’s one sentence, but in those few words, the author establishes the time and location of the story (June 1931 at Son Martin’s place) introduces the protagonist and the antagonist, sets the hook and raises questions in the readers’ minds. Why did Mr. Baylor send a boy up to tell Martin about the raid on his still? Why did that start the war?

Let’s look at another:

One day Karen DiCilia put a few observations together and realized her husband Frank was sleeping with a real estate woman in Boca.

In this example Leonard establishes the relationship between Karen diCilia, Frank, and the real estate woman. In other words he has introduced the protagonist, the antagonist, and the conflict. With conflict comes drama, and the fundamental question all writers want in the readers’ minds. “What happens next?”

Now one of my problems as a writer is that I like a slow start to a story. I want to set the stage so to speak. I want to show the protagonist in his/her happy place before the inciting incident burns everything to the ground. So I write it that way. Then I try to cut everything out that slows the start. I don’t always succeed.

There are more rules about what is wrong in an opening that what is right. I’ll try both. A story opening should contain the following:

  1. The setting – time and place of the story,
  2. The protagonist, and the antagonist,
  3. The source of the conflict,
  4. Indication of genre,
  5. Something original and memorable.

Consider this example:

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.

It is memorable, possibly unique. It does introduce the protagonist. You see, putting all the stuff I listed into a single sentence is well-nigh impossible, so each writer weighs the combinations.

There are some rules about what shouldn’t be in the opening. They include:

  1. The weather.
  2. Nothing but description.

I know. I understand weather. Unless the weather is crucial to the story, almost a character in the story, this is a waste of words. The same with description. While we want the setting, we also want something to happen. In the three examples I’ve given something has happened. Dialogue. I’m personally not convinced about this one, but I understand that when you start with a line of dialogue you usually end up with a conversation rather than action.

Have said all of this, it’s the exceptions that make writers grind their teeth. Consider this opening for a novel that is included as one of the one hundred best opening lines:

The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.

This is why so many authors end up drinking. You get to the point where you think you know the rules and someone (in this case Samuel Beckett) changes the rules.

To see some of my short stories go to