Opening sentence

Opening sentence

At the beginning of a written work stands the opening sentence. Considered "most important",[1] the opening sentence needs to entice the reader[2] and sets the subject, the tone and possibly the style for the whole work,[3] although this does not have to be obvious.[4] David Lodge describes the opening sentence as the "threshold" of the novel.[5] The opening line is part or all of the opening sentence that may start the lead paragraph. For older texts the Latin term "incipit" (it begins) is in use for the very first words of the opening sentence.[6]

As in speech, a personal document such as a letter starts with a salutation; this, however, tends not to be the case in documents, articles, essays, poetry, lyrics, and general works of fiction and nonfiction. In nonfiction, the opening sentence generally points the reader to the subject under discussion directly in a matter-of-fact style. In journalism, the opening line needs to stimulate the reader's interest already aroused by the headline. It is in fiction where the art of the opening sentence flourishes as authors have much liberty in the way they can cast the beginning; they need, however, to attract attention, arouse curiosity, and entice, lest they lose their audience.[4] Techniques to hold the reader's attention include keeping the opening sentence to the point, showing attitude, shocking, and being controversial.[2] One of the most famous opening lines, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ...", starts a sentence of 118 words[7] that draws the reader in by its contradiction; the first sentence of Yes even contains 477 words. "Call me Ishmael" is an example of a short opening sentence that grabs the reader immediately. Formulaic openings are generally eschewed, but expected in certain genres, thus "Once upon a time...".

Inspired by the opening, "It was a dark and stormy night...", the annual tongue-in-cheek Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest invites entrants to compose "the opening sentence of the worst of all possible novels",[8] and its derivative, the Lyttle Lytton Contest, for its equivalent in brevity.

The opening sentence may sometimes be also used as the title for the work, e.g. Everything I Possess I Carry With Me; papal encyclicals and bulls are titled according to their incipits.[9]


  1. ^ Christopher Jackson (November 6, 2009). "The Most Important Sentence: How to Write a Killer Opening". Retrieved November 28, 2009. 
  2. ^ a b Alan Rinzler. "Ask the Editor: The Power of the Opening Sentence - 6 Tips". Retrieved November 28, 2009. 
  3. ^ Write in Perfect English (2009-11-25). "Wow to Begin Writing - The Opening Sentence access". 
  4. ^ a b David Venter. "The Opening sentence - The Genesis of the Novel". Retrieved November 28, 2009. 
  5. ^ David Lodge. The Art of Fiction. Penguin (London, 1992). p. 5. ISBN 0-14-017492-3. 
  6. ^ Dictionary use
  7. ^ Charles Dickens. A Tale of Two Cities. 
  8. ^ Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest: Rules (page down)
  9. ^ Museum of Learning. "Encyclicals: Roman Catholic Usage". Retrieved December 6, 2009. 

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