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Creative writing: Three quick fixes to help students write better opening sentences

In an exam situation, students can get stuck trying to come up with an opening sentence, so this head of English offers some tips to help them make the most of their writing time

When students are working on a piece of creative writing, they will often waste far too long agonizing over the perfect opening sentence.

This can be frustrating, but should really come as no surprise when one considers the fact that even Ernest Hemingway, in A Moveable Feast, writes about the painstaking act of finding that elusive “one true sentence” that would go on to form the backbone of his latest work. He explains how he would sit in front of the fire, watching the rooftops of Paris from his window and think: “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”

Time – along with romantic views of the Paris skyline – is something students don’t have. And so, this “one true sentence” that forms the opening of a piece of work and gets the ball rolling needs to come pretty quickly. Of course, we can and should use devices such as “sentence escalators” to get kids thinking about what makes a great opening sentence, but we also have to face the fact that sometimes, in an exam situation, a quick fix can come in handy. Try these simple tricks on for size.

Use bathos

Bathos is a phrase that describes failed attempts at literary sublimity or eloquence. It’s anticlimax: a sudden switch from the grand style to a crude or vulgar one. For example: “The ballerina gracefully glided across the stage like a nymph riding the winds of change, and landing, lifted her leg like a dog pissing up a lamppost.”

Bathos is the literary equivalent of Mozart’s 5th symphony morphing into the Benny Hill theme tune at the point of crescendo. Skilful employment of bathos displays maturity. It is self-deprecating and aware, it is intelligent and yet ridiculous, it is complex. This is why opening sentences that employ bathos are really impressive.

Make cultural allusions

A few years back, I marked a piece of creative writing that began: “A long time ago in a galaxy not far from the hogs back roundabout just off the A3…” As I read this, a wry smile appeared on my face. Star Wars. This kid knew Star Wars and he knew that I knew Star Wars. He cared about his audience. He knew that I, as an adult marker, would understand the cultural reference he was making and in making it, he allowed me access to an exclusive club that “gets it”. It made me feel good.

Even better, do both

That got me thinking. Why not teach kids some famous opening lines from famous literary works, and train them to manipulate them to achieve bathos? Imagine what Dickens could do to a student piece on their favourite meal: “It was the best of bacon double cheeseburgers; it was the worst of bacon double cheeseburgers.” Or what Bronte could do for a piece about exam preparation: “There was no possibility of having any sort of thing one would could reasonably call a life that day.” What could JP Hartley do for a piece on a time a student tried a new experience: “Chess club is a foreign country, they do things differently there.”

The possibilities are endless. Give it a go and you might be surprised at what your students come up with.