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Max Barry wrote the novels Syrup, Jennifer Government, Company, Machine Man, and Lexicon. He also created the game NationStates and once found a sock full of pennies.

Blog

Thu 17
Dec
2015

Opening Lines

Writing

Let’s say, hypothetically, that you’re a hypothetical human being that, hypothetically, dabbles in writing short stories on Google Drive to kill the mindless boredom of hypothetical math classes. You need a snappy one-liner to kick off your short. Since your writing MO seems to include some pretty good starting sentences, what are your thoughts on how to achieve the perfect opening hook for a story?

Fish

I appreciate you saying my first sentences are “pretty good,” Fish. I can see why you came to me. I, too, seek wisdom from people who perform slightly above average. Some people say you should shoot for the stars, but I prefer to aim at about hat-height.

I believe in starting books from the front. When writing them, that is. Actually, reading, too. It’s important both times. But I mean I’d rather have a good first sentence and figure out the idea later than the other way around. An idea by itself isn’t much good. I have ideas for books all the time. They will be amazing, if I can ever get them onto paper, which I won’t, because they only sound good. Good-sounding ideas are actually terrible because they have no character and no heart.

An idea only becomes good with execution. A book can be anything, before you start, but by the end of the first sentence, it can only belong to a specific set of things. By then you have a sense of whether anybody is likely to die in it, or use the word “parsimonious,” or if it’s going to be funny, or have wizards. There is probably a tense and point of view and setting and timeframe. There’s still a world of possibility, of course, but you started with infinity, so this is smaller.

Anyway. I don’t have any tricks. I just think about it and see what tickles me. I like short first sentences. I try to write books that are interesting because things happen in them, not because I am an enthralling carpenter of words, so I think the first sentence should advertise that by getting to the point.

Here are my opening lines so far, just in case you don’t know them by heart:

I want to be famous.

Hack first heard about Jennifer Government at the water cooler.

Monday morning and there’s one less donut than there should be.

As a boy, I wanted to be a train.

“He’s coming around.”

And a few from novels that may never be published:

When Jason Hackman was four years old, he broke both arms falling out a second-storey window.

I want to help you.

So it’s 1346 and I’m hacking some guy’s arm off.

I’ll be honest: I did a bad thing.

Our job was simple.

Diego once killed a man by digging a hole.

When she was five, she was allowed to go to school.

I like those kinds of sentences because they make me want to read the next one. Or write it. That’s really all I’m looking for.

Comments

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Adam's Neighbour (#7053)

Location: Next to Adam's place
Posted: 1386 days ago

Hack Nike, Jason Hackman, hacking some guy's arm off... You got a favourite word Max?

Machine Man subscriber Max

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Quote: "I'm my number one fan!"
Posted: 1385 days ago

You don't use a good word only once.

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