The first sentence of a story can lure readers in, like a wiggly worm on a fishing hook. Or the first sentence can cause readers to pound the snooze button.
How can you show students how important first sentences are?
Here’s one way:
- Show students a single drawing or photo in which some kind of human or animal action is going on. It could be the first page of a picture book (if so, cover up the words), a sports photo from a magazine, or something you’ve downloaded. Try to find a picture which is clearly focused on one or two characters and without a lot of distracting background.
- Ask the students to write the first sentence of a story about the events in the picture. (No, you are not going to write the whole story. No, I can’t offer any help.) Let students muddle through how to approach the writing. If they make a tentative suggestion, wanting your approval, affirm their suggestion, however good or bad you think it is.
- Next, tell them to write another first sentence for the same picture, but this time they are to start the sentence with a direct quote. It could be someone speaking aloud or someone musing.
- Next, tell them to write another first sentence for the same picture, this time focusing on descriptive detail. The weather, clothing, posture, the look on someone’s face—any details which seem noteworthy are okay to write about.
- Now tell them to write still another first sentence, focusing on the emotions of a person or animal in the picture.
- Now write a sentence focusing on using specific vocabulary, especially specific verbs.
That gives you and the students several sentences to evaluate.
- Ask the students to read aloud each of their sentences.
- Ask which one seems the weakest or least alluring. If there are two somewhat bad sentences, that is fine. Ask the students to identify why those sentences seem not as good as the others.
- Ask which sentence seems the best. If the students think one, two or three are superior, ask why.
- Go slowly, offering the students plenty of time to consider and reconsider their choices and reasons. Evaluating takes time. Accept all responses.
- Now, ask the students to take the best elements of the good sentences and combine them into one final sentence.
- Ask them to read that sentence aloud, and to explain why they chose particular elements to include.
Lastly, ask the students what they have learned about writing from this exercise.