First Sentences

My two writing classes today were focused on writing first sentences. I compiled a few resources to provide lens' for examining all the first sentences they had written the previous week. From an article over at A Tate Publishing Blog, I pulled three criteria:

  • excite a reader's curiosity, particularly about a character or relationship
  • introduce a setting
  • lend resonance to a story

These criteria are the goals for an effective first paragraph, but I think any of them additionally apply to a first sentence. With my class, I broke setting down into three more distinct notions: time, place, and mood [which I discussed in a Heideggerian sense as our "being-in-the-world"]. The post then gives two questions to ask of a first sentence:

  • Does it convey an interesting personality or an action that we want to know more about?
  • Can you make it more intriguing by introducing something unusual, something shocking perhaps, something will surprise the reader?

Given my favorable disposition to Peter Brooks' psychoanalytic treatment of hermeneutics, I chose to boil that second question down to "suspense": does the first sentence pose a question we want answered?

From a creative writing handbook, I pulled two more criteria for evaluating good sentences:

  • Flashes a picture in your mind, using concrete details
  • Puts you right in the middle of something happening

Finally, I read the short article Killing the Babies and Captivating First Sentences" over at footnoteMaven with the class. I liked this article not only for its title, but also for its pragmatic advice. When revising, fM focuses on identifying the most compelling sentence in a piece, and then finds a way to "rock" that piece up to the very beginning of a document.

For non-academic writing instructors out there, this makes for an excellent exercise. Come to class with a document that contains every first sentence your students have written for a particular project. Have the students select their three favorites from the list; additionally, have them mark off the three sentences that need the most work. After tallying results, have students apply fM's theory to whichever piece of writing received the most critical votes--can they, looking through the entire paper, find a compelling sentence that could be crafted into a more engaging opening? And, then, can they use this principle on their own writing?

A brief survey of the results showed the answers to such questions as positive. And, of course, I hope the critical attention such an activity fosters is applied to every sentence they write.

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