How to introduce conflict or change in your very first sentence
Nancy Kress, author of Elements of Fiction Writing – Beginnings, Middles & Ends,says writers have about three paragraphs in a short story and three pages in a novel to catch the reader’s (or agent’s or editor’s) attention. She explains how we can make our openings interesting and original through character, conflict, specifics, and credibility.
In our very first sentences, we can hint at some future conflict or change in our story.
Kress says that we don’t have to have a body hurtling from a window—there are many subtler ways to introduce conflict. Randomly choosing a few of my favorite books from my bookshelf, I’ve copied their first sentences below:
“Running with the Demon,” by Terry Brooks.
“Hssst! Nest!” His voice cut through the cottony layers of her sleep with the sharpness of a cat’s claw.
I like the specifics here and the contrast of “cottony layers of sleep” with “sharpness of a cat’s claw.” We have the feeling that something interesting is going to happen.
“Watchers,” by Dean Koontz.
On his thirty-sixth birthday, May 18, Travis Cornell rose at five o’clock in the morning.
This opening makes me think something unique is going to happen on Travis’s birthday—the mention of the date is important. It makes me wonder–does he normally get up at 5 a.m.? I’m curious.
“The Road,” by Cormac McCarthy.
When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.
The rhythm of this opening line draws me in along with the images of the dark, cold woods. I wonder why the child is sleeping here. Is he in danger?
“The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” by Carson McCullers.
In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.
I like this simple, straightforward sentence that brings up an unusual image. I want to know more. Who are the two mutes and why are they always together? I get the feeling they won’t be together for long, that something will happen to tear them apart.
In your rewriting process, take some time to analyze your first sentence to make sure it draws your reader in and introduces some type of conflict. Ask others to read your first line. Does it make them curious? Raise questions? Intrigue them?
I recommend reading Kress’s book to discover what she says about the rest of the beginning—what comes after that first sentence—and how to make it stand out.
Exercise: Go to your bookshelf and analyze the first sentences of some of your favorite books. Do they hint at some upcoming conflict or change? Read the first sentences of some of your least favorite books or books that just didn’t sustain your interest. Do you notice a difference from the first line?