I’ll start with this:
Joanie was sitting on the bus and looking out the window when the truck hit George.
It’s not a compelling sentence, much less a great first sentence. It doesn’t tell us if Joanie actually saw the truck hit George, does it? It uses the boring ‘was sitting’ and ‘looking’ verbs, too.
So—I’ll begin with what I’m trying to say. Here are the facts the author knows, but so far, the reader does not:
Joanie’s on a bus. What kind? School bus. Where is it? Boca Raton, Florida. Where was she seated? Second row behind the driver—window seat.
Who is she? A public school attendee. How old? Fourteen. Where is she going & why? She’s headed home after school, presumably to have a snack & do her homework.
Who is George? A young man from Texas. How old? Twenty-five. Was he in a car or in the street when he was hit? He was running and darted into the street. Does Joanie know him? No.
What kind of truck was it? An F150, black. Who was driving it? An old man. Did Joanie see the accident? Yes.
Where were they when the accident happened? On Palmetto Park Road heading west.
That’s enough facts to get me started with a better opening. I don’t have to use all those facts in the first sentence (or in the first paragraph), of course, but I do want to pique the reader’s interest.
So, second attempt:
Yawning, Joanie shifted in her seat as the school bus jolted over the train tracks and returned to staring out the window.
Okay, it’s better—way better—especially the verb choices, but is it compelling? Starting a book with a yawn may not be the best thing to do, either. Unless the sentence becomes overly long, the action involving George (and other details) now has to happen in subsequent sentences. And that’s okay. But if I want a power-packed first line, this won’t do it.
As Joanie relieved her boredom by staring out the school bus window, a dark-haired man ran from the sidewalk into oncoming traffic, and a huge black pick up slammed into him.
Still ‘eh’. Also starts with an ‘as’. And it sounds ‘passive’—like the storyteller is bored telling it. It doesn’t put the reader into the scene. The reader is merely watching from afar.
Stop for a moment and assess—what are the most important facts to establish?
Joanie’s young. George gets hit. Joanie witnesses it.
I’ll try again:
Bored and tired, Joanie switched her gaze from her phone to out the school bus window just as a dark-haired man darted from the sidewalk into traffic, and a huge black pick up slammed him into the air.
I’m getting close. We know Joanie’s a kid, because it’s a school bus. We know George gets hit. We know Joanie doesn’t know him, or the sentence would use his name—being in Joanie’s POV.
I’m going to add ‘screaming’ to George’s description—to show he wasn’t simply careless. Something was terribly wrong that made him think his only option was going into the street. I’m taking out ‘out’ because it’s an extra word that doesn’t need to be there. We can assume when she switches her gaze to the window that she’s looking out of it. I’m taking out ‘just.’ It’s a word that almost never needs to be there. ‘As’ tells us the action happens at that exact moment.
Bored and tired, Joanie switched her gaze from her phone to the school bus window as a screaming dark-haired man darted from the sidewalk into traffic, and a huge black pickup slammed him into the air.
This works for me. It tells me it’s a normal day. Whether Joanie’s either on her way to school or on the way back (morning or afternoon) will be established soon. She looks out the window in time to see a crazed man running into traffic and get hit by a truck.
To assess, we have to put ourselves in the reader’s head. What questions come to their mind immediately? What question comes first?
I think the first is—what was so wrong that a man would risk running in front of a truck? Then—because of the word ‘slammed’, not ‘hit’—oh, my God, where did he land? Is he alive? The reader is seeing the carnage in their head without my having written a word about it. What was he running from? Was someone/something chasing him?
Next is concern for Joanie, the school girl. No one ever wants a kid to witness that. Did any of the other kids see it? What about the driver? Does the driver stop the bus?
It’s safe to say by re-writing it the way I did, I’ve piqued the reader’s interest, yes? I’ve gotten them involved in the story from the first sentence.
Let’s look at the verb usage. Switched, darted, and slammed. No ‘was watching’, ‘ran’, ‘looked’, ‘changed’ or ‘sat.’ The verbs are dynamic, not boring.
Notice I didn’t say ‘up into the air?’ Directional words are extras that aren’t needed and slow down your writing. There is no other way but ‘up’ if you’re tossed into the air (from Earth, that is), so it’s not necessary.
I used ‘huge black pickup’ instead of F150 because we’re in Joanie’s POV, and most fourteen-year-old girls don’t know or care about truck models. (Your character might, but mine doesn’t.)
I didn’t use the word ‘crazed’ in the sentence, because that’s a judgment call on Joanie’s part, and that’s also telling, not showing. By saying a screaming man darted into traffic, I’m showing that he’s crazed.
Also notice I didn’t describe how anything looked, other than George’s dark hair and the fact the truck was black. We have to put tiny bits of detail into the sentence, or the reader can’t create as full a picture. I picked dark-haired, because Joanie’s fourteen, and she’d most likely notice his hair, as his face might have been a blur, since it happened so fast. The truck’s color is black, because it paints a more ominous picture than a red or white truck, or no color mentioned at all. We don’t really care what anyone’s wearing at that moment, or whether Joanie is black, white, purple, blonde, brunette, or a redhead. Keeping the description to a bare minimum keeps the action going. Details of all sorts can be added in subsequent sentences.
And voila! I have a first sentence. Next time, I’ll work on what comes after.
I believe the only way to get through the slings and arrows life throws at all of us is to find the humor.