First Five Words Writer’s Challenge

First Five Words Writers ChallengeOur writers’ group challenge for November was First Five Words: come up with the opening line of a novel in five words, going straight into ‘show’ don’t ‘tell.

It’s a valuable exercise and writing coaches, editors and critiques discuss opening lines all the time. The prevailing advice is to open with a real kicker; short, sharp, to the point. Raise a big question; incite the reader’s curiosity, engage their empathy. Tease a mystery. Present a character. Do all of these. All at once.

No pressure.

Classic Openings

We can all think of some killer opening lines. And some really bad ones.They are nearly all long sentences, perhaps the length of a paragraph.

I’ll repeat a favourite (collect a sticker). Forget the length, enjoy the punchline:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. (Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice)

In the style of its time, P&P opens with tell, not show. Orwell is right there, fully telling and with passive voice:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. (George Orwell, 1984)

Some classic novels have really long, dull, terrible opening lines, followed by really fine writing and compelling stories.

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. (Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms)

No way would this pass an editor today.

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. (F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby)

Response; ‘heck, it’s a short book, let’s give it a try anyway.’ If Gatsby were three hundred pages, would we continue or put it down right there?

Here’s another common exercise. Choose a book from your shelf, turn to page one, what do you find for your opening line?

Some of the masters can land a solid punch with few words:

All this happened, more or less (Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five)

That’s six words. Bringing it down to just five words is a whole other level.

It was a pleasure to burn (Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451)

I am an invisible man (Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man)

Back to the Challenge

What do you do with only five words?

I’ll always default to English Whimsy or Mystery Theatre. I came up with:

‘So I got arrested. Again.’

On a roll with Mystery Theatre, I also got:

‘That partial fingerprint: it’s mine.’

Then I recalled my November Challenge (NaNoWriMo) project. It’s actually the second line:

‘How much for the boy?’

For those who said “how much for the boy?” got very dark very quickly, my protagonist is trying to get a special child away from a dodgy merchant before the bad guys arrive to snatch him.

It’s the first line of dialogue in the novella, designed for maximum punch on page one, before you know the either setup or the protagonist. Well done if you immediately thought Oliver Twist; but no.

I was tempted to make it the very first line, but I’m trying to drop the protagonist’s name into every first line of each project.

The actual beginning is:

Aeryn Parr crossed the village square as the merchant stepped down from his wagon.
“How much for the boy?”

What can you do with the first five words? Quite a bit.

4 thoughts on “First Five Words Writer’s Challenge”

  1. Malissa Duterrau

    Opening lines are so difficult. Lee child:
    “Jack Reacher and Michelle Chang spent three days in Milwaukee.”

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