While scrambling some eggs yesterday, I shook my head in frustration, bolted over to my computer, and began busting out this public service for anyone writing a book.
You need help. Your opening sentence is terrible. Chances are, nobody else will tell you. So I will.
Then read these two opening sentences and decide which is compelling… and which is boring as hell:
“We watched in horror as nine months of files began deleting themselves. The Toy Story sequel, which the world was already buzzing about in anticipation, was self-destructing… and we couldn’t stop it.”
“Every morning, as I walk into Pixar Animation Studios – past the twenty-foot-high sculpture of Luxo Jr., our friendly desk lamp mascot, through the double doors and into a spectacular glass-ceilinged atrium where a man-sized Buzz Lightyear and Woody, made entirely of Lego bricks, stand at attention, up the stairs past sketches and paintings of the characters that have populated our fourteen films – I am struck by the unique culture that defines this place.”
Here’s another pair:
“$700,000 gone in a whiff. Our client was furious. I was humiliated. Most CEOs, in this position, would publicly fire the employee responsible. I did something different.”
“When we are children, other people, typically our parents, guide us through our encounters with reality.”
Here’s what I did.
I took the opening sentences from Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc. and Ray Dalio’s Principles… and gave them a makeover. No, they’re not perfect. They could use a second set of eyes. As well as a fact-checker. But those are minor points compared to how I changed the tone of the opening.
Specifically, I used one of the most powerful techniques I’ve ever learned about the craft of writing, when it comes to opening sentences.
Call it the James Bond Technique.
I’ll get to the specifics of the technique in a moment.
First… how dare I critique the words of a self-made billionaire or the driving force behind one of the most successful film studios in history?
Because, apparently, nobody else did.
These two gentlemen, Ray Dalio and Ed Catmull, hammer home in their books how their companies’ success derived, in part, from honest feedback. Sometimes scathing, encouraging, specific or vague feedback… but always welcomed.
That dynamic disappeared when they scuttled off by themselves to pen their messages to the wider world. I can only guess, but I wonder if their own reputation harmed them. Perhaps their editors were afraid to throw their first drafts back in their faces and roar, “You lost me in the first paragraph!” Maybe the authors got solid feedback but ignored it. Or maybe some things just slipped through the cracks.
Either way, Ray Dalio and Ed Catmull had the opportunity to produce works on par with their previous careers. Instead… they wrote mere darn good books.
Perhaps the difference is dust mite-small…
… and I care only because I’m a writer who lives and dies by crafting pieces that get attention. I don’t get to say, “I’m Ray Dalio so slog through most of what I’ve written because the gems you learn will be worth it.”
The truth is closer to… I saw what could have been. Especially in Creativity Inc. Spoiler Alert: A rough, nearly-complete copy of Toy Story 2 was almost destroyed because of a technical glitch. The peeps at Pixar watched in real-time as it got erased, but salvaged a back-up copy stored on an employee’s personal laptop. When they transported the laptop back to the studio, they wrapped it in blankets, and all held it as they walked across the parking lot.
Guess when you read that incredible story? Not on page 1, where it belonged. Not on page 10 or even page 50. First, you must meander through Ed Catmull pointlessly recounting his schooling and job history before getting to anything approaching action or drama. And he made his dent in the world telling stories.
Look, I get that Ed Catmull was taking the reader through an opening montage much like a Pixar film, highlighting the various characters. The use of movement in the opening is good. But he buried the powerhouse opening. Something gripping.
Something that could have made his readers gasp.
I’ll stop picking on Ed Catmull. Instead, I’ll return briefly to Ray Dalio’s opening, simply to say it’s only one step above “Humans do things, often involving other humans and objects too. And stuff.”
Now the James Bond Technique.
Think about how James Bond films begin. 007 could be tracking a terrorist in the midst of a crowd watching a snake and mongoose duke it out… chasing a suspect through cavernous hallways in the middle of a desert town… or careening through traffic on a winding highway.
You may have zero clue what’s going on…
… but you’re hooked. And you’ll figure things out as they unfold.
The openings dive into the middle of the action. When you’re crafting an opening sentence and you’re in doubt – and you should always be in doubt – then defer to the James Bond Technique.
Start in the middle of the action.
At the height of tension. Get the reader hooked. Weave in the exposition from there.
Look through my other blog posts, to see how often I do it. Even here, I chose a scene of mild mental anguish from my life, rather than the more obvious “Here’s a trick to make your opening sentences more gripping…”
Special thanks to Sol Stein, author of Stein On Writing, for opening my eyes to how crucial first sentences are. He did a much better job describing the stakes, than I have.
I might keep calling out poor opening sentences, as a public service. It’s not just Ray Dalio or Ed Catmull who have eye-grabbing tales of struggle and triumph. Or James Bond, for that matter. Everyone who sits down with something to say, can harness a moment of pain from their lives to create interest, bonding, and facilitate the change they want to make in the world, with their writing.