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. First sentences draw the reader in and give them a sense of character, setting, and emotion. They carry a lot of weight to gain your readers interest and trust in your writing. 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. I hope you will reader 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.
I’ll offer an example from Ernest Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms. I’ll give you the first sentence then I’ll dissect it to learn what Hemingway accomplished in using those three elements. Your take on it maybe somewhat different than mine, but that’s okay.
HEMINGWAY in Farewell to Arms. “In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountain.”
CHARACTER: The word, “we,” implies two or more people. The rest of the sentence tells us that they live together in a house. My assumption before reading the book would be that it is a couple, which it is.
SETTING: “In the late summer of that year,” tells me it is about a point in time that we will learn more about later. But it happens in a season that is waning, which gives me the feeling that something is in decline, about to hibernate, or die.
The phrase, “a house in a village,” makes me think of a remote location, perhaps isolated.
The prepositional phrase, “across the river and plain,” again gives me the feeling of being in a valley far from the big picture, or where the action occurs.
Finally, the last expression, “to the mountain,” tells me they are looking to what is or might be happening on that mountain. Or perhaps it is just a goal, a wish, or even an illusion.
EMOTION: The setting has carried a lot of metaphorical and emotional weight of distance, foreboding, remoteness. A moment in time that might entail a connection, an affair, an event that does not bode well.
As you can see, Hemingway’s sentence deftly implies a decision by his main character’s to give up his arms to fight in World War I. The relationship between he and his lover is waning because they are looking at what they need and want, which is not each other.
What’s next in the coming weeks?
Look next week for another example taken from a narrative nonfiction classic. The next week another one from a short story; and finally the last week the example from my own novel, Song of Herself, to be published next year (soon I hope).
What about you?
Does this help you think about the first sentence in your story, novel or narrative nonfiction? Examine your first sentence and tell us what you find.