Writing the First Sentence
Writing skill: idea and sentence fluency
Learning how to write in English is hard. Learning how to write well? That’s really hard.
One specific way to improve student writing is to help them understand how to write a good first sentence. The first sentence, when written well, does many things. It creates interest. It makes the reader want to finish the story or essay.
It also helps the student. The first sentence provides a map. It tells the student what to focus on as they write the rest of the story.
This is a mini-lecture, brainstorming activity and writing assignment that works for intermediate+ level students.
Step 1 Introduce Concept
The first sentence of a story or essay is important. It should be interesting. It should create interest. It should tell the reader something about what follows in the rest of the story.
Try not to be boring.
Here is an example of a boring first sentence that might open a summary about a video called The Present.
This is a story about a boy and a dog.
Well, this might true, but what happens in the story? Why should we care? What makes this story special?
Step 2 Demonstrate Understanding
Indicate that writing the first sentence is hard. It’s a writing skill that takes time to learn. Point out an example from Stephen King, one of the greatest writers in the English language. He said he spends weeks, months and sometimes years writing and rewriting the first few sentences of a new book.
According to Stephen, the first sentence should do this:
An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.
Step 3 Review Examples
Here is a collection of first sentences from various books. They create interest in different ways. The value here for student writing is finding some sentences pasterns which they can adapt to their own writing.
“You’ve been here before.” Stephen King, Needful Things
– Really? Where is this place? I want to know more.
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” George Orwell, 1984
– Creates interest with a surprise at the end of the sentence.
“All this happened, more or less.” Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
– Which parts are true? The reader has to decide.
“Where’s Papa going with that axe? said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.” EB White, Charlotte’s Web
– Where is he going and why?
“Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday. I can’t be sure.” Albert Camus, The Stranger
– Existential classic. Creates strange picture of character.
“As a boy, I always wanted to be a train.” Max Berry, Machine Man
– Good sentence pattern to introduce two ideas in one sentence.
“For the better part of my childhood, my professional aspirations were simple – I wanted to be an intergalactic princess.” Jane Evanovich, Seven Up
– Simple start and a funny ending.
“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” Norman MacLean, A River Runs Through It
– Good sentence pattern to compare two things.
“It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression ‘As pretty as an airport.'” Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul
– Good sentence pattern to introduce an unusual theme or compare two things.
Step 4 Brainstorming Practice
Now it’s time to practice writing first sentences. Below is a file with some pictures. Show the pictures and ask students to write a compelling first sentence that might be used to start a short creative story.
Writing prompts for first sentences.
This might be a good pair work activity if the students enjoy that process. After some time, encourage students to write their sentences on the board.
Step 5 Creative Writing
At the end of Step 5, students should have generated a first sentence for each picture. Ask students to choose 1 and write a creative story.
The teaching objective here is to demonstrate an ability to write an interesting creative story that links the body content with the first sentence.
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