Lord of the Flies

by William Golding

The Hired Girl

Laura Amy Schlitz

Writing the First Sentence

Writing the First Sentence
Ron Koertge Writers on Writing 60second Recap

The first volume of Ron Koertge's upcoming adventure series for younger readers, co-authored with Christine Heppermann, will be published by Greenwillow in September, 2015.

Writing Workshop: Writers on Writing | 60second RecapA student once gave me an ancient how-to manual for writing engaging fiction.

Tip #1 was this:

Have a strong first sentence!

Here’s the example: “Damn,” said the duchess as she stumbled on the stairs and her cigar flew into the nearest planter.

Quaint, right? Even back then the author might have had his tongue in his cheek, but the principle is sound: A duchess rarely smokes, stumbles, or swears. What else will this one do as the story unspools?

Read on and find out.

The Secret of (Authorial) Success.

That’s the simplest possible secret to success as an author: Write something that readers can’t put down. Starting with the first sentence.

1984 opens with a clock striking thirteen.

Albert Camus begins The Stranger like this: “Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.”

Really? What’s up with that clock? And how strange does someone have to be to admit to not knowing the day his own mother died?

Fast forward to the present. Here’s the opening sentence of M.T. Anderson’s book, Feed: “We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.”

Pretty much my favorite among the thousands of first lines I’ve read as a teacher and writer. Sixteen words from M.T. Anderson and I know I’m in a different world; I love the narrator’s attitude; I can’t wait to hear what happens next and how he’ll describe it.

The most important sentence you'll ever write...

In a way, first lines are easy:

“Bobby woke up so sick he was sure he was going to die.”

“I’d rather spend five minutes with you than five years with another girl.”

And even, “We left Los Angeles in the dark.”

Why is Bobby so sick? Who’s the extravagant romantic? Is it just nighttime in L.A., or did someone single-handedly turn off all the lights of Los Angeles?

Most readers would keep their eyes on the page.

Pyrotechnically gripping, or modestly engaging, the first sentence matters. It’s the reason I buy new pants for the party: I want to be noticed. I want to be intriguing or outrageous.

I want those pants to be magnetic and draw people to me, just like a wonderful first sentence draws readers.

Sure, I have to deal with what happens next. Someone could laugh at my fashion sense or punch me in the nose for flirting. But if writing is about anything, it’s about risk.

...until, perhaps, your next sentence.

Every writer I know has dozens of galvanizing openings lying around like shiny, broken toys. And every dramatist knows that plays rarely open with someone running onstage with her hair on fire because that’s a hard act to follow.

But writers always have problems to solve. Right now I’ve got new pants, a party invitation, and the whole night ahead of me.

Come along. Anything, absolutely anything, could happen! And I’ll do my best to make it interesting—starting with the first sentence.


Ron Koertge writes poetry for everybody and fiction for Young Adults. His latest book of poems is The Ogre’s Wife (Red Hen Press). His most recent book for Young Adults, a novel-in-verse, is Coaltown Jesus (Candlewick Press).

Find out more about Ron on his website, RonKoertge.com.

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