It was the best of lines, it was the worst of lines. If it’s the introductory sentence, it needs to be an engaging line, at least. First, let me say that the introductory sentence does not have to be in a particular style. What I mean is that something simple can be just as useful as something complex. If it’s fiction, for example, this line could certainly work:
He waited on the shore.
Why is he on the shore? What or whom is he waiting for? Who is he? The point is that there’s tension in that line that needs resolution. It’s certainly not complicated, but it gets the job done. On the other hand, an introductory sentence like this could have an impact as well:
Jacob Ester knew that by the time his father got home, the cornfield needed to show progress.
This one is a bit more complex with more information, but the reader can expect a challenge and can wonder if Jacob will finish his task. Either way, an effective introductory sentence, whether in nonfiction or fiction, needs to make an impact on the reader. Let’s take a look first at what you can do in fiction.
Conflict: Fiction is about conflict resolution (more about this next week). One of the best ways to capture the reader’s attention is by introducing the conflict in the first line. You don’t have to state the exact issue at hand, but as you can see with the examples (or even with the line I parodied from A Tale of Two Cities), hinting at the conflict from the onset causes engagement.
Theme: This one can be a bit trickier, but I would recommend introducing your theme (what you as a writer are saying with your story) as quickly as you can. Be subtle, but even in the second example above, there’s a hint of what the story will be about (the power of a father-son relationship). This may mean finishing the first draft of the story and reworking the first sentence once you know the theme, but there’s no shame in that.
Wit: I am definitely a simple-is-better advocate, but there is no one way that is “right” for story intros. Play around with multiple versions of the sentence, try them out with reviewers, and see which one works the best.
Nonfiction is not so dissimilar. You are still introducing a conflict (what the reader needs to know but doesn’t yet or perhaps even a disagreement of opinions for a news story); you are still presenting your theme early on; and you are still trying out various ways to start the article, paper, or essay. Now, certain types of writing have conventions (journal articles have abstracts, for example), but an excellent introductory sentence is still important for getting the reader to actually read. Nonfiction does not mean non-creativity.
What are some of your favorite introductory sentences? Leave them in the comments and tell us why you like them.