Sunday, 28 October 2012

In the beginning there was .... a sentence.

This week has been a very busy week for me as it was the school’s talent competition. I organised and hosted the show with the help of some brave and excellent colleagues. We had some judges. We had some brave acts. We had the audience, but how do you start a talent competition? Pyrotechnics are too expensive and too dangerous. Starting with an act would have been too cruel. Therefore, we took inspiration from ‘The X-Factor’; we had some music and some 'Dermot dancing'. So a colleague and I strutted our stuff to Taio Cruz’s ‘Higher’ for a minute.  I think the most accurate way to describe the crime to dancing would be ‘dad dancing’. It was funny, embarrassing, engaging and a whole host of other things. I wasn’t taking myself seriously and it was a kind of message to parents and students: look, this is fun and you’ll never make a fool of yourself compared to your dear teacher on stage.

The opening of most things is important. The opening of a book. The opening of a film. The opening of a lesson. Get it right and you have people hooked and on your side.  Get it wrong and you struggle to keep them looking in your overall direction. It is interesting that there are loads of books on ‘starters’ in teaching, yet very few books on ‘middles’ and ‘plenaries’.  Now, I am not going to bore you with loads of starters I use as there are plenty other, much better, sources for that. No, I am going to share one starter that I use over and over again with different classes. Oh, and it is about openings.

This activity is usually used as a way to start a piece of creative writing. It saves you from those annoying questions about how to start a story after two lessons dedicated to planning it. Also, I use it to look at the opening of a class novel. I print out a sheet with the following sentence openings. Then, I give each student one. It doesn’t take long before they are heads down intrigued by each line.

It winged its way across the blackness of intergalactic space, searching.
(World-Eater, Robert Swindells)

The knife that killed me was a special knife.
(The Knife That Killed Me, Anthony McGowan)

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.
(I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith)

I shouldn’t have done it.
(The Monster Garden, Vivien Alcock)

Jimmy knew what was coming, but he was too late to dodge out of the way.
(Jimmy Coates: Killer, Joe Craig)

When I was nine I was an owl.
(The Seventh Raven, Peter Dickinson)

The first time I only saw its face.
(The Ghost Dog, Pete Johnson)

It starts and ends with the knife.
(Jackdaw Summer, David Almond)

It was sick, hungry and a long, long way from home.
(Hydra, Robert Swindells)

Peter Bishop knew that he couldn’t hang on to the icy rock of the crevasse any longer.
(White Out, Anthony Masters)

Lonely, invisible, and still wearing the clothes they had died in: the ghost of four children were in this house.
(Breathe, Cliff McNish)

As Matt watched the rain through the window, the rain watched him back.
(The Chaos Code, Justin Richards)

When he awoke, the room looked different somehow: there was a window where the door used to be.
(Are All the Giants Dead?, Mary Norton)

The horror always came with waking.
(The Visitor, Christopher Pike)

In the middle of the night they came for me.
(The Frighteners, Pete Johnson)

I am afraid. Someone is coming.
(Z for Zachariah, Robert O’Brien)

It would happen again today, Kerry knew it.
(Bully, Yvonne Coppard)

I found him in the garage on a Sunday afternoon.
(Skellig, David Almond)

I thought werewolves only existed in stories and late-night films.
(My Friend’s a Werewolf, Pete Johnson)

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

Funny things were going on inside my school locker.
(The Boy Who Reversed Himself, William Sleator)

The desks were moving.
(Bullies Don’t Hurt, Anthony Masters)

It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.
(Mortal Engines, Philip Reeve)

I never had a brain until Freak came along and let me borrow his for a while, and that’s the truth, the whole truth.
(Freak the Mighty, Rodman Philbrick)

When I opened my eyes I knew nothing in my miserable life prior to that moment could possibly be as bad as what was about to happen.
(The Black Book of Secrets, F.E. Higgins)

When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.
(The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham)

Then, I simply ask them: ‘Which is the best opening line to a story?’ There has yet to be a class that has all come to the same answer.  Some love the funny ones; others are interested by the violent ones. Overall, it creates a great discussion.

The next stage is to explore what makes them so effective. As a class we come up with a rough set of rules:

·         Refer to something as ‘it’ or ‘they’ to create mystery and hide the identity of person or creature

·         Suggest something bad has happened or is going to happen

·         Use a narrator

·         Describe something ordinary and make one thing odd about it

·         Raise lots of questions

Students then create their own on a post-it note and we read them all out. Thankfully, it stops that annoying ‘How do I start it?’ phase of story writing.  Plus, it gives students a range of sentence structures to copy or adapt for their own writing, saving us from some pretty dull writing.

Depending on the rest of the lesson, I might leave this as a starter or do some of these things to extend the learning:

·         Categorise the openings by genre, impact on reader or effectiveness.

·         Write the next few sentences to one of the openings.

·         Based on one of the openings, write the last sentence of that story. How will they link together?

·         Take one opening and analyse it in great detail.  What questions does it raise? What techniques are employed to hook the reader?

·         Watch an opening to a Doctor Who episode and write down the questions created to hook the reader.

If I have time, I might take them to library and get them to find new openings to add to this list. It gets students to engage with different books and, occasionally, they might even be persuaded to read the whole book.  
I do something similar with the openings of non-fiction texts with Year 11. However, I always mention how writing in an exam is a bit like a date. The first impression is a lasting impression. If they opened the door to some dishy date who’s dressed to impress, then the date will probably go well. If they opened the door to someone scruffy and bored, then there is a big chance things will not go too well.  Therefore, there first sentence must be impressive and free from mistakes. It sets the message and the tone of what they are doing. It hooks people in and keeps them: I am interesting so you can't help being interested in me.

In the beginning was the word. Yeah, maybe. However, I like the image of God looking at an empty nothingness and muttering the immortal words, ‘How do I start this?’ He looks up and there is no English teacher to direct Him.



  1. Love this. Great idea & very easily 'borrowed'. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Thanks for this. Am always looking for my 'list of first lines' that I've compiled and then kept somewhere safe ....

  3. Chris - this is a great collection of first sentences. I read through them compulsively. Will be using next week. Thanks.

  4. My all time fav: 'It was the day my grandmother exploded' Crow Road Iain Banks

  5. Thanks David and David. I agree with you there - 'Crow Road' has a fantastic first line. I happen to be a bit of an Iain Banks fan myself. Brilliant writer.


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