W3 Wise Words on Writing

W3 is a monthly newsletter for writers on a variety of topics from technique to the psychology of writing. It appears by the 15th of each month. More information is available from www.wisewordsonwriting.com

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

No: 42 Up to Fifty Words to Make A First Impression

Any comments or suggestions please email D-L Nelson at donna-lane.nelson@wanadoo.fr

Teachers may borrow from W3 but please give us credit.


Readers often make buying decisions on the first paragraph of a book. Likewise many agents and publishers have said if the beginning doesn’t grab them, they don’t bother reading any further. The first few words of a story are your most important if you want your work read by anyone.

Compare the first paragraph or the first sentence of a story to an introduction and the old saw you have thirty seconds to make a good impression. Substitute thirty words for thirty seconds although good opening sentences can be anything from one to fifty words.

So much can be conveyed in a few opening words.

Tone: Serious, humorous, sad, bewildered, melodramatic.

Place: Country, city, inside, outside, type of building, room, etc.

Weather: Hot, cold, rainy, sunny, thunderstorms, snow storms, hail, sleet, etc. This type of opening had lead to the joke about novels starting with “It was a dark and rainy night.” I have a personal dislike of staring any sentence much less a first sentence with the word it. Ditto for there followed by is, are, were.

Theme: Although a writer doesn’t yell, “Hey reader’s, here’s the theme,” often the first words sets it. Sometimes readers don’t even realize there is a theme, even upon finishing a story but if the story is well done, they feel it.

Time: What part of the day it is.

Season: Spring, summer, fall. Weather and season do not always have to match. An unusually warm winter or cold summer can create an entirely different mood and heighten conflict by the contrast.

Sensuality: smells, colors, textures

An opening serves another purpose that is little discussed. If the reader is enthralled, then that is the first step for him or her to develop trust in the writer. Once the trust is established, the author has more leeway to develop side stories, throw in something not quite believable and the reader won’t put the work aside, but will go on to see why it was done and what will be the income.

And after the first sentence, comes the second and the third and the…


1. "On a hot midsummer morning, after over sixteen years of marriage, Jane MacKenzie saw her husband fifty feet away and did not recognize him." 24 words

Notes: Weather, season, time of day and marital length of the heroine and the heroine is named all in 24 words. What makes this memorable is the second part of the sentence that she did not recognize him. Very few people could resist wanting to find out why she didn’t recognize him. The why is the theme and holds the secret of the entire conflict of the book.

2. "It was on a mild, fragrant evening in late September, several weeks after she had moved to Glenkill, Pennsylvania, to begin teaching at the Glenkill Academy for Boys, that Monica Jensen was introduced to Sheila Trask at a crowded reception in the headmaster’s residence." 44 words
Joyce Carol Oates SOLSTICE

Notes: Oates gives us season, weather, place, city, state, event and the two main characters all in one sentence. She also established what Jensen is doing at the school. The entire story involves around Trask’s and Jensen’s relationship, so the relationship is the theme.

3. “Friday January 1st 1960 (New Year’s Day) How on earth can I get rid of David?”
Colleen McCullough ANGEL

Notes: There is no doubt about the time, which alone is not enough to capture our interest, but the following fist person quotation certainly pulls in. Why does the narrator want to get rid of David? Who is David?

4. “I don’t know if that story was picked up the West. I believe some interest was shown in South Africa, but only because rape and murder had been high on the country’s agenda for some time.” 36 words
Minette Walter’s THE DEVIL’s FEATHER

Notes: Here we have the narrator expressing some confusion about what the reader might know but she throws out the possibility that it will be known. Rape and murder define the story as a possible mystery even if the reader had no idea Walter’s was a mystery writer.

5. "The Dream Catcher, an artifact made on the reservations of Native Americans and sold in souvenir shops there for little money, was a circle the size of man’s palm, formed from some pliant wood and then banded with a leather thong." 41 words
Andrew Miller OXYGEN

Note: The dream catcher has little to do with the story, although dreams and aspirations make a major part of this novel. This is a lead-in opening.

6. “Mary, you will regret this.” 5 words
Elizabeth Goudge SCENT OF WATER

Note: By using a quotation Goudge sets up the novel for a change in Mary’s life.

7. “I’m in love with a chickpea named Peter.” 7 words

Note: This was an opening to arise curiosity on the part of a reader


1. Make several lists one each for countries, cities, seasons, types of weather, times of day, moods and tones. Now combine the elements from the different lists and write a sentence that could be the opening of a story or novel.

2. Write and opening sentence for a potential story that is based around weather only. Then repeat it for season, time, place and a sensory experience. Example of a sensory-based sentence: The smell of burning leaves always brought her back to that day no matter how hard she fought against it.

See you next month,
D-L Nelson