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Every now and then I’ll run across an opening sentence that blows me away. It’s as though the author caught a lightning bolt and nailed it to the first page.
The best opening sentence that I’ve seen in recent years was from Molly Giles’ short story Pie Dance.
“I don’t know what to about my husband’s new wife.”
The incongruence is what grabbed me. It catches the reader off guard and draws them into the story. That’s a great beginning.
Another stand-out first line that has stuck with me for years is from Charles Bukowski. His short story titled A Couple of Gigolos opens with “Being a gigolo is a very strange experience, especially if you’re a non-professional gigolo.” I knew I was in for a fun ride and I wasn’t disappointed. The sentence structure is part of why that line is so effective.
I’ve been slowly working my way through Italo Calvino’s short story collection, Difficult Loves. Some of the stories are better than others, but the other day, I noticed an instant connection to the one titled Adventures of a Clerk. The first line is “It so happened that Enrico Gnei, a clerk, spent the night with a beautiful lady.” The context was crystal clear and that’s what pulled me. Knowing the character’s a clerk is a non-starter, but knowing he’s a clerk who got laid serendipitously by an attractive woman immediately threw me into the heart of the story.
Each of those opening lines shows the emotional state of the main character, besides giving some context about who the character is. They also established the tone, whether irony, whimsical irreverence or a sense of good fortune, and used the heart of the matter as their launching pad.
Don’t expect to catch a lightning bolt right off the bat, though. Occasionally the first line will magically appear, but more than likely it comes after the first draft is complete because sometimes it takes getting to the end to understand how to craft that lightning bolt.