As much as first words have an important part to play in an opening parlay with the reader, so also does tone. The swift, rapid-fire play of dialogue or the quiet, slightly sarcastic, wry wording of a paragraph can help establish the mood of what is to come. When Alice Hoffman began the tale of, she also began the first creative steps in worldbuilding.
“The last major crime in the town of Verity was in 1958, when one of the Platts shot his brother in an argument over a Chevy Nomad they had bought together on time. Usually it’s so quiet you can hear the strangler figs dropping their fruit on the hoods of parked cars, leaving behind pulp and tiny black seeds. Since Verity is the most humid spot in Eastern Florida, local people know enough to drink iced coffee in the morning. The air all around the town limits is so thick that sometimes a soul cannot rise and instead attaches itself to a stranger, landing right between the shoulder blades with a thud that carries no more weight than a hummingbird.”
“Charles Verity, who founded the town, after killing off as many native people as he could, is said to have found this out the hard way….”
Hoffman quickly establishes the tone, the setting, the genre, and the style, all the while adding a few drops of foreshadowing. The first paragraph reeks of atmosphere. Each word is carefully chosen and the result is the promise of a hot, sultry, even southern-style of a novel. She also establishes voice. The reader is carried along by the clear cadence of the phrasing, easing the reader more deeply into the world opening up before him.
Only Hoffman could dig deep within to come up with the wonderful sensory-filled image of a place that is so hot, humid, and thick that something as light as a soul would struggle to rise, and, unable to make it, would, instead, “attach to a stranger.” Only Hoffman would pull together shoulder blades, a sound (thud), and a hummingbird to create the perfect sound effect for such an attachment. Only Hoffman could have written that opening. Now look at the first sentence of the second paragraph. See how quickly Hoffman has shifted from a panoramic setting to a close up of one man. The tone and atmosphere has changed. Like a quick-sketch artist, Hoffman shifts the reader into high story-gear with a promise of more to come. Hoffman has packed those five sentences full; they are doing double and triple duty.
Every time you write, your words may be conveying more than you realize. Think carefully about your opening sentence. Examine each word choice. Look at the piece in its entirety to capture the overall mood of what you’ve written and its impact on the reader. Have you said what you intended? What does the atmosphere and tone say? Are there mood shifts? Is there subtext? What, exactly, have you said? What, exactly, will the reader infer? And last, is that what you meant?