How to Write a Killer First Sentence (In a Totally Non-Violent Way)

This is a guest post by Diane Tolley. Her novel, Carving Angels comes out next month.

Diane Stringam Tolley was born and raised on a ranch in Southern Alberta, Canada. Educated in Journalism, she is the author of countless articles and short stories, as well as several enovels. She and her husband, Grant are the parents of six children, grandparents to 9+ and live and play in Beaumont, Alberta, Canada.

You have the pen.

You have the paper.

Diane Tolley Author
Me. Before I started writing. Oh, and my brother, George.

All right. All right, you live in the 21st century. A computer and printer . . .


Now how to get the words from the inside of your head to the outside.

And in a non-messy, no-sharp-instruments-involved way.

The first and most important thing you will need is an opening sentence.

Like, ‘The plane was falling like a leaf’.

That’s the one my seventh-grade Language Arts teacher always used.

And which started my brother, George on a riveting and humorous story about Superman.

But I digress . . .

So, opening sentence.

Make it brief. Make it interesting. Make it outrageous.

Spell it right.

Remember. It is what will pull in your reader and make them want to read more.

If they can’t get past your first five words, I’m sorry, there’s not much hope for the rest of your book.

In Journalism school (yes, there really is such a thing) they taught us that the ideal first sentence should be thirteen words.

Or less.

You heard me right.

Thirteen words.

Or less.

Diane Tolley Author
Me. After I started writing. But before I got any fashion sense.

Who comes up with this stuff?

We used to have classes (and classes) on just this topic. Pull your readers in in thirteen words or less.

It can’t be done.

At least, that is what I said.

Although I have to point out, here, that I was known as the class clown. The dumb blonde. The . . . you get the picture.

Moving on . . .

Your opening sentence doesn’t’ have to encapsulate (real word) your story. It only needs to introduce it. Get things started.

Rather like pulling the cord on a lawn mower.

Although that never works with our lawn mower, but . . . never mind.

I like to start in the middle of a conversation or action and then take the story both ways. Moving ahead and filling in the background at the same time.

Sound complicated?

It’s not.

If I can do it . . . you know the rest.

Listen to this . . .

‘The explosions were closer now.’

Or even better . . .

Diane Tolley Author
And today - Camping 2011 Writing keeps me outta trouble!

‘A couch was suddenly ejected, forcibly, from the third-floor window.’

How in the world does that happen?

Does it make your imagination soar?

Or this . . .

‘Jared looked down at the silent group gathered in the dusty yard.’

We’ll take this one further . . .

‘Hostile eyes stared back at him.

No one spoke.

The creak of leather and the jingle of a spur were the only sounds on the hot, still air.’

Okay, who the heck is Jared? And why is the group unhappy with him?

Because they certainly are.

And why is there leather creaking and spurs jingling?

Obviously we aren’t in Tokyo.

Okay, maybe we are, but it’s clearly a different Tokyo than I’ve visited.

But now we get to fill in the story, going both forward and back. Let people know, through the action, the who, what, where and why.

Isn’t it exciting?

Aren’t your fingers just itching for a keyboard?

Go for it.

And remember . . .

Brief. Succinct (Ooo, I like that word). Exciting.

And spelled right.

3 thoughts on “How to Write a Killer First Sentence (In a Totally Non-Violent Way)

  • August 19, 2011 at 2:40 pm

    Okay. So reading your post made go back to chapter one of my third novel I’ve been working on and count how many words in the first sentence. Thirteen, exactly! Yeah, that’s a good sign.

    • August 19, 2011 at 2:44 pm

      You learn faster than I did!!!

  • August 19, 2011 at 5:31 pm

    I remember reading an interview with Scott Westerfeld where he talked about authors comparing their opening lines. Apparently it’s quite a point of pride among writers! I loved this post. Such an interesting way to describe a good opening sentence. Now I’ll have to go back and count mine!

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