INTRODUCTION: Writers continue to learn the craft no matter where they are in their writing development. Recently, I read in the January 2022 issue of The Writer magazine an article by Alison Acheson, “In The Beginning: Three elements that create a strong opening sentence,” pages 26-29. Opening sentences have a lot of weight to carry. The author suggests that there are three elements to carry that responsibility of reeling in the reader. Here is my take on reading her article.
Three Elements in First Sentences
CHARACTER: Readers want to have a sense of the main character(s). We may not know their names, but we know something about them that will show up again or throughout the novel.
SETTING: The first sentence will offer a sense of place, maybe a location, time in history, or an event.
EMOTION: This may be indirect or implied by the setting or action or event. We likely won’t be told in the first sentence what the emotion is, but the writer will hint at it. We will get a sense of it.
After last week’s example take from fiction, this week I offer a nonfiction example from Frank McCourt’s memoir, Angela’s Ashes . I’ll give you the first sentence then I’ll dissect it to learn what McCourt accomplished in using these three elements. Your take on it may be somewhat different than mine, but that’s okay.
McCourt’s first sentence in Angela’s Ashes, “My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born.”
CHARACTER: The reference to the writer’s father and mother suggests they who set the action in motion. Even if we don’t know if the mother and father will be key actors throughout the memoir, we do know that they made a decision that impacted the antagonist, Frank McCourt’s life.
SETTING: The phrase, “… should have stayed in New York,” implies they are all on a journey to some place else. They have left a thriving city where previously good things had happened – the couple met, married, and gave birth to Frank.
EMOTION: The setting, like Hemingway’s, carries a lot of metaphorical and emotional weight. In this case, it provides a hint of regret, remorse, or longing for what is left behind.
As you can see, the relationship between him and his parents implies that McCourt is young and therefore reliant on his parents at this point in time. His first sentence deftly implies a decision by parents that will come to influence or impact McCourt gravely. What we do not know is that Angela is his mother, nor that her ashes are the cigarette ashes of despair.
As writers, when we can weave or at least hint at the three elements, character, place, and emotion in the first sentence of a story, whether fiction or nonfiction, we have successfully sent a message to readers they are in capable hands.
Next week, I’ll take the first sentence from a fiction short story writer. Join me in this series of investigations on first sentences that convey character, setting, and emotion in some significant way.