Today’s readers want to get to the meaning quickly, which requires a strong start.
- Give Sentences Meaning from the Start.
Using the word there is the weakest of all sentence starts because readers must wait until at least the third word to find any meaning. Find the noun that follows the verb and bring it to the front so readers and begin to form a picture from the first words.
- There was still one thing I longed to do. I still longed to do one thing.
- There were two Two other people were in the waiting room.
- There were supposed to be eight to ten guys from church. Eight to ten guys from church were supposed to be there.
- There was one One girl left behind me, looking for something in her purse.
- There was a lot of excitement in Excitement filled the air that year.
- There’s been a A revolution going on is raging.
- There was a The purse was made from denim.
- There was nothing between the two armies but Only five or six hundred paces of open grass, a small brook, and half a dozen stunted trees separated the two armies.
- There was a A loud bang that echoed through the night air.
- Get “It” Right.
Beginning a sentence with “it” is as bad as using “there,” maybe worse. The mystery to be solved by readers is to supply the meaning of “it,” either from the preceding sentence or the words that follow. Make a more powerful sentence by starting with what “it” is.
- It was during the battle that During the battle, he realized he could lead men.
- It only took ten minutes, but it Ten minutes seemed like a lifetime.
- It was always good to see new faces. You knew you were closer to home with each one. Each new face meant you were closer to home.
- It is not a character flaw to love yourself. Loving yourself is not a character flaw.
- It took me three hours to repair the hole. Repairing the hole took three hours.
- It was impossible to see facial Facial features could not be distinguished.
- It proved to be a pleasant ride. The ride proved to be pleasant.
- It was a responsibility I took the responsibility seriously.
- Begin with a Bang
Never begin a story with scenery or weather. Why? Most people aren’t into hugging and kissing trees. You want a character for your readers to either love or hate. Begin with a person of interest who has a goal and faces obstacles. Consider these opening paragraphs:
The town square looked like a Norman Rockwell painting, but IEDs in Afghanistan had not frightened him as much. The courthouse was made of native stone, with a big round clock on the tower, and stood in the middle of the square, nothing like the dust-covered terrain of the Middle East, with death lurking behind every bush. Small shops and eateries filled the blocks that surrounded the courthouse. Jack Hayes admired the rolling hills and small farms he passed on his way into town. This was what he dreamed about as rockets whizzed over his head, blowing up strategic things that were there to protect him from losing a leg or his life.
“Welcome back,” he whispered to a town he couldn’t remember, and a place he didn’t know.
An old truck drove past and backfired. Jack ducked his head, then realized he wasn’t in danger. It took a moment for the adrenalin to slow, and his heart to stop racing.
He pulled to the side of the street to calm the flight or fight instinct, and glanced at the address scribbled on a piece of paper. 517 Willow Road.
The Norman Rockwell simile limits the audience to people who have an appreciation for his work. Those people are dying at the rate of several thousand a day (that’s a true statistic). It sounds like the action is taking place in Afghanistan. Is it? I decided it was South Dakota, but then I couldn’t explain why rockets were whizzing overhead. The bottom line: We need a better sense of direction and conflict from Jack Hayes.
- Here’s a First-Draft Rewrite:
Jack Hayes loved the rolling hills and small farms of South Dakota. There, he could find peace, but he was driving to the city that to him might as well have been the embattled terrain of the Middle East. He felt like the bushes had guns and the rocks concealed land mines. He passed the courthouse, where political factions fought for what they wanted and ignored justice and fairness. The native stone structure had stood for centuries, and the old clock tower still kept its approximate time. It might be off by an hour, but nobody cared. Whatever it said was what set the order of the day.
An old truck drove past and backfired. Jack ducked as if a mortar had been fired, then realized he was in America where people effectively assassinate one another with their words. He pulled to the curb and waited for his heart to quit racing. On a piece of paper, he scribbled the address: 517 Willow Road.
Readers still don’t know what is going on, but the two revised paragraphs should make them want to find out.