Beautiful Beginnings: The First Sentence
Perhaps a book shouldn’t be judged by its cover, but what about its first sentence?
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a writer in pursuit of a great lead should not steal others’. Ironically, and on purpose, I just did, using one of English literature’s most famous openings — from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
How you open your story, article, letter, orapplication greatly matters for its success. So much, actually, that it might make or break your piece: If you pique your readers’ curiosity in the first sentence, they’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and follow you for a few more. If you waste their time and have them work too hard for it, a world of infinite distractions easily let them walk away. Life is short, attention spans even shorter, and there are plenty more interesting things to read than your hogwash.
So, spend some time on your opening sentence.
The first sentence is a crucial piece of the work you’re doing: it’s what captures your readers attention; it’s what moves them from the status of a detached stranger to someone you’re now conversing with. Its explosive importance has a very simple purpose: move the reader to the second sentence — and beyond. If you successfully manage that, over and over as sentences flow into paragraphs, you’ve written an excellent text. Bravo!
William Zinsser, a writer whose advice I often resort to, has this to say about openings:
“Your lead must capture the reader immediately and force him to keep reading. It must cajole him with freshness, or novelty, or paradox, or humor, or surprise, or with an unusual idea, or an interest fact, or a question. Anything will do, as long as it nudges his curiosity and tugs at his sleeve.”
It can be anything and doesn’t even need to deal with the topic at hand. Ideally, it should, and if you could wrap your message into a single — provocative, curious, attention-grabbing — sentence, you definitely should. A practical man, Zinsser doesn’t mind much what your hook consists of: “The only valid test is: does it work?” Precisely.
The latest issue of The Economist features an article with a disturbing and icy opening:
Press a knife into human flesh and, as the blade slides in the sensation subtly changes.
…before a professor of anatomy is quoted to describe the sensation of cutting through human skin, arteries and veins. After repeated exposure, I still can’t read the full paragraph without a shiver down my spine; as an opening, it works wonders. Originally, I wouldn’t care two straws for the topic of the piece, but yet I had to continue reading. Mission accomplished, from the point of view of the author.
The Economist has perfected the art of using iconic quotes, sassy expressions, and captivating lines. Later in same article, ‘The pandemic has caused a shortage of cadavers’, we find: “all men may be born equal but they do not, in the eyes of anatomists, die so.” That, too, would work as an opening. The smug, subtle, or satiric flavor characteristic of British humour is repeatedly found in this magazine. Same article: “given both rising demand and supply constraints, it is perhaps surprising that arms and legs do not cost an arm and a leg.”
British humour is an acquired taste, I am told.
Judging from my own beginnings, I often opt for the provocative, the strange, the direct or the absurd:
- “On a cliff overlooking the upper Mississippi River in Wyalusing State Park, Wisconsin, stands a peculiar monument: a dedication to a pigeon.” (HumanProgress.org, May 2020)
- “Imagine mailing a stock prediction for next week to ten thousand unknowing recipients.” (Mises.org, Jan 2020)
- “A few weeks after the anniversary of Karl Marx’s birthday, I’m thinking about the sacred and the profane.” (AIER, May 2020)
- “The morning after Trump was elected, people in my university class were crying.” (AIER/Property Chronicle, Oct 2020)
- “Being contrarian is hard work.” (AIER/Zero Hedge, May 2021)
- “Every asset that moves fast attracts the B-word.” (CoinDesk, Feb 2021)
- “Britons have a thing for Nordic countries — especially so if you’re on the left.” (Adam Smith Institute, July 2019)
However much they’re suited to their audience and the outlet in which they were published, I don’t think any of them approach some of the timeless beginnings I’ve come across in my own reading:
- Robert Higgs, the historian and scholar of political economy whose work have much shaped my intellectual development, starts his magnificent Crisis and Leviathan: Episodes in the Growth of American Government with the explosive: ”We must have government.”
- In a similar flavour, George Selgin’s cutting edge The Theory of Free Banking begins “Most economists believe that ‘money will not manage itself’.”
- Deirdre McCloskey, the original inspiration for my interest in economic history, opens her Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce with “I bring good news about our bourgeois lives.”
…or the many beautiful beginnings that world literature has produced (have a guess, if you can name them):
- “Call me Ishmael.”
- “Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.”
- “The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children’s games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up.”
- “Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.”
- “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Some beautiful beginnings become classics — that’s how powerful they are.
The format matters: fiction writing has a little more leeway in what its authors can or cannot do — its readers have a little more patience with you setting a stage — as do long-read formats, like London Review of Books. Non-fiction, particularly articles that people consume on a daily basis, must be a little more sharp and to-the-point.
The outlet matters: I could only write “attracts the B-word” in that CoinDesk article because of knowledge that its audience would have at the time I wrote it. In February 2021, the bitcoin world and the wider cryptosphere were up in arms about their booming assets, and everyone, friend or foe, were talking about bubbles. I couldn’t have written “the sacred and the profane” unless those words were intimately associated with Karl Marx and that my audience likely knew that. The Economist can write its sassy, artsy, artistic, challenging and absurd beginnings because its readers appreciate it and it’s the style they’ve created for themselves. That’s a topic for a different time: Match your voice to the outlet.
What’s clear is that the first sentence matters, and you want a strong reaction with your readers such that they keep reading.
Writing is an art, not an exact science, and what works in one instance may not work in another. Writers need to use judgement and taste, and inevitably some of us will disagree with your choice. Still, once you’ve finished a draft, take a moment to think about what a powerful beginning would be like.