When I used to supervise psychiatric residents I would ask them to describe the single thing that defines a successful initial interview with a client in therapy. Typically, they would answer something about making a tentative diagnosis, or considering the need for medication. Occasionally, a resident would mention starting a therapeutic relationship. I would agree that all those are important considerations but not the most important goal of the first contact. The single event that defines a successful initial interview is that the client shows up for a second interview.
I believe the successful opening sentence or paragraph is the one that persuades the reader to continue reading the story.
In my checkered past as an e-zine co-editor and a co-judge of writing contests, no story that failed to engage me by the end of the first paragraph, enticed the other editors/judges sufficiently to get published or win an award.
Here are three examples that worked for me:
From Beecher’s Bibles, “When the riders appeared out of nowhere, I knew they came to kill my pa.” I think that sentence sets up expectations and lets the reader know the stories takes place in the past. It took about the same length of time to write that one sentence as it took to write the rest of the story.
From The Turkey Hill Affair, “Turkey Hill, Iowa was a big disappointment until I bumped into Bennie as he was robbing the Farm and Business Bank.” I think this introduces the narrator as a person with an unusual background and suggests the humorous tone of the story to come. This was as easy to write as the sentence above was difficult.
From Riding Shotgun, “I was in disguise when it started — designer sunglasses, boat shoes without socks and a tailored Italian suit.” I think this arouses curiosity and foreshadows that in this story appearances can be deceiving.
I invite you to share what openings have worked for you.
I also invite those of you in the Kansas City area to attend my signing of Murder Manhattan Style at noon on 2/4/11 at I Love a Mystery Bookstore 6114 Johnson Drive Mission, KS 66202 or you can order it at http://www.ninthmonthpublishing.com/books.html