1. Mike was sitting on the bed.
2. I’m in line at the coffee shop.
3. We’re barreling down the road toward the hospital.
If the above lines are the first sentences of three, individual stories, which story would you want to read? I’d choose #3. And that’s what a writer has to do from the beginning: hook the reader. Some call it the “first sentence hook,” but whatever you call it, it’s important. As a reader, I’m even more interested in the first sentence than the title. Sure, the title gets me to the first sentence, but the first sentence gets me through the rest of the story—especially a flash. Keep in mind that I’m talking mainly about traditional narratives.
So what makes #3 a better opening line than the others? Immediate tension. Yes, there are other things at work, too—present tense, the verb “barreling” being more exciting than “was sitting” in #1 or “am” in #2, etc.—but the action is what forces me to pay attention. Even if my initial assumption is wrong—someone’s hurt and they’re driving him or her to the hospital—I’m still intrigued enough to continue. Plus, #3 conjures a host of other questions that #1 and #2 don’t. For instance, what happened? Who’s “we”? Is anything gonna happen on the way to the hospital because of the way they’re driving? In short, I care. I care because I want to know what’s going to happen.
I do think length plays a role, though. Because most of my flashes are long, in the area of nine hundred words or so, my first sentence has to do more work than the first sentence of a fifty-word flash. From the perspective of a reader, even if I’m not hooked at the beginning, I’m more likely to read a piece if it’s really short. But, if I see several paragraphs ahead, and the first one’s not doing it for me, I don’t have a reason to continue reading. Thus, you can usually get away with a weak first sentence if your piece is incredibly short. However, why would you want to?
And then there’s the ironically absolute statement: there are no absolutes. Sometimes you don’t want a first sentence that pulls out all the stops, which is fine. As long as it pulls me into the story, you did your job.
Bio: Jason Jordan holds an MFA from Chatham University. His forthcoming books are Cloud and Other Stories (Six Gallery Press, 2009) and Powering the Devil's Circus: Redux (Six Gallery Press, 2009). His prose has appeared online and in print in over forty literary magazines. Additionally, he’s Editor-in-Chief of decomP, accessible at www.decompmagazine.com. You can visit him at his blog at poweringthedevilscircus.blogspot.com.
Read “Spelunking” at JMWW
Read “Skin Deep” at Night Train
Read “Reverence” at Wigleaf