I’m a judgmental little bitch: I won’t judge you by your clothes, I won’t judge you by your weight, but I will judge you by your first sentence. If your first sentence doesn’t make me wet, I won’t get to your last sentence.
My creative writing professor drilled me on the importance of the opening sentence. The opening line must lead the reader to the second line, and on and on until the final sentence, all of which should leave you salivating for more more more. I’ve yet to perfect the opening sentence, though I like to think I’ve had a few.
So what got me thinking about opening lines?
I was on an AirTran flight Sunday morning, and with whatever was going on with their in-flight wireless, I was stuck thinking, “if this Gogo wasn’t a stop-stop, I’d be tweeting this shit from 30,000 feet.”
I flipped through the first several pages of ads, skimming and skipping “Gary’s Greeting” on page seven before being drawn into Orion Ray-Jones’s piece “Bon Voyage!” on page nine. This is the 100th issue of GO! magazine, and its last, which is too bad because I was an instant fan of Ray-Jones.
Nine years ago, as I sat 30,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean, I had a revelation: spending $20 on a dark-chocolate Toblerone bar the size of my forearm was a brilliant idea. (Orion Ray-Jones, Editor-in-Chief)
I finished that paragraph, and then went back to read it again. I realized my heart was palpitating, and it was because, one, yes, Toblerone is always a brilliant idea, and two, that sentence catapulted me into the second sentence (It was the third such epiphany that had struck me since opening the duty free catalog.), and the second sentence into the third (As the freshly anointed editor of AirTran’s new magazine, which would be launching in a couple of short months, I probably should have been nose-deep in the competitor’s publication tucked into the seatback in front of me.), and the third into the fourth (But back then, salivating over the descriptions of untaxed candy and schnapps was a lot more fun than reading the average airline magazine, so I passed.), which nicely wrapped up the introduction and transitioned the piece into an explanation of the special focus of issue and the end of GO!.
We’re not talking a novel here. It’s five paragraphs, but five paragraphs in which every word matters, starting with the very first words I encountered. Had they been as lame as the opening of the earlier piece, I wouldn’t now know that GO! will be replaced with Spirit beginning next month. I hope Spirit has a place for Ray-Jones because he’s got it going on when it comes to grabbing and holding this reader’s attention.
Grabbing the reader’s attention is the prime responsibility of the first sentence. It must matter. It must matter in a novel, a news story, a feature article, and a blog post. No matter the form or focus, it must matter. Speaking specifically about the opening lines of a blog post, it’s all readers get in the WordPress Reader, Facebook publicize, and, depending on settings, in email notifications of a newly published post. It. Must. Matter.
I’m no opening line guru. I’m working on it, and I painstakingly compose the first sentence after I’ve completed the piece. It’s something I learned not just from exercise after exercise in creative writing courses, but from turning in research papers and getting them back with the professorial comment, “your thesis is in your conclusion.” By my senior year, I had finally learned to swap my introductory paragraph with my conclusion, and I never heard “your thesis is in your conclusion” again.
It was a valuable lesson, one I took with me through my training as a writing tutor, one I shared with students coming into the university’s writing center for help with their own research papers, and one I use now as I compose blog posts. Once I’ve finished saying what it is I have to say, I’m secure in the focus and feel I can properly introduce the piece with a kick-ass opener. Kick-ass is the goal. Sometimes it’s just ass, but I want it to have kick to it. It’s part of the practice. Someday all this practice will become perfection.
How did “I’m a judgmental little bitch: I won’t judge you by your clothes, I won’t judge you by your weight, but I will judge you by your first sentence. If your first sentence doesn’t make me wet, I won’t get to your last sentence.” work for you? Did you want to know what in the world I was talking about?