Every opening—for each chapter and scene—is crucial. But the first is most crucial of all. Along with the familiar openings of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, haunting openings usually need no context at all:
They shoot the white girl first. – Toni Morrison, Paradise
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. – William Gibson, Neuromancer
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. – Gabriel García Márquez, 100 Years of Solitude
Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu. – Ha Jin, Waiting
Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space. – Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye
Yet, as Chad Harbach observed in The Art of Fielding,
It was easy enough to write a sentence, but if you were going to create a work of art, the way Melville had, each sentence needed to fit perfectly with the one that preceded it, and the unwritten one that would follow. And each of those sentences needed to square with the ones on either side, so that three became five and five became seven, seven became nine, and whichever sentence he was writing became the slender fulcrum on which the whole precarious edifice depended. That sentence could contain anything, anything, and so it promised the kind of absolute freedom that, to Affenlight’s mind, belonged to the artist and the artist alone. And yet that sentence was also beholden to the book’s very first one, and its last unwritten one, and every sentence in between.
Sentence Revision Exercise 1
Just for fun, model the first line in your book after the structure of an opening sentence you love. Now transform your sentence into something that actually works, perhaps a combination of your original sentence and the one from this exercise. What did you discover? Can you apply it?
Sentence Revision Exercise 2
View your first sentence as the launch pad for everything else. Is it powerful enough? Does it hint at what’s crucial and set up the climax? Revise until it does, to improve not only that essential sentence, but your understanding of your entire novel.
Tip: The opening sentence must stand on its own and foreshadow every sentence to come.