A captivating first sentence and killing the babies are necessities of good story writing. So what are killing the babies and good first sentences? I'll use my recent article for Randy Seaver's Saturday Night GeneaFun titled, The Hearse, Frozen Goldfish, and Twins as an example of the two strategies.
I received the following comment from Kay of Kay B's Place - "From the first sentence you drew me in." Thanks for noticing Kay, because that was my intention. The first sentence in any story or article should captivate the readers attention.
My sentence was, "We had only been at my Grandmother's house an hour when the hearse came and took my Mother away." Short, not complex, setting a mood, making you want to know what my Mother was doing in a hearse. Was she dead?
That was not the first sentence in my first draft. That sentence wasn't even in the first or second paragraph. What was the process that convinced me it should be the first sentence of this story?
I had written the first draft as if I was pouring memories from a bucket. I wrote everything that flowed from my mind about the event, but started with the snowstorm and then an explanation of Mrs. Mary.
I stepped back to look at the article objectively. Did the first sentence in the first draft grab me? No, it didn't. So, if the first sentence didn't grab me it certainly wouldn't grab others. Did it flow? No, it didn't. The best word to describe the article's flow was choppy.
~ T. S. Eliot ~
I went through my first draft and determined that the first sentence of the third paragraph was the most compelling and directed the reader to the heart of my story. That was the sentence I was looking for, so I moved the first paragraph to a point later in the story. This is what I call "rocker writing;" present versus past.
Although I liked my second paragraph, it was completely unnecessary to the story and disrupted the flow, so I hit the delete button. Editing something that you have painstakingly written for your story, that you love, but that is unnecessary or disruptive to the flow of your story is tantamount to murder. These are your babies, but if it isn't working, good-bye baby. This is lovingly referred to as "killing the babies." It will hurt much less if you place that work of art you've killed in a word document to be used later in a more appropriate setting.
Good writing comes from educated reading. By that I mean you must pay attention to what you read with an eye toward your own writing. I'm reading Heyday by Kurt Andersen. It is filled with writing inspiration. Andersen's first sentence in the first paragraph of this book is a perfect example of captivating the reader.
Now go look at what you're reading, what you enjoy reading. Study the first sentence and the flow. Unfortunately, we'll never see the babies the author has killed, but we will get a fine example of a finished product.
He hadn't stood on solid ground for nearly two weeks, and as he stepped from the gangway onto the Cunard pier he felt shaky. The adventure continued! Albeit for the moment in a place called New Jersey. Until an hour before, he had never heard of New Jersey.
Good writing also comes from practice, practice, practice. Go back and evaluate your own first sentences. Are they compelling, do they captivate? If not, rewrite them. Do you need to kill some babies? I know it hurts, but give it a try. Your writing will be better for this exercise.
I'd love to know some of your favorite first sentences, whether written by you or an author you admire. Leave them in the comments as inspiration for us all.