Crawling Through Toyotas: Or How to Write Compelling First Sentences

Recently, I was reminded again of how a sharp opener can help propel a good essay. That’s because first sentences are like first impressions: a good one goes a long way to cementing further contact.

A great first line is, above all, memorable. It signals a voice or an attitude that grabs you by the collar and won't let go.

Since Since the spring, I've volunteered my time as a writing coach at an area high school. The students I coach are part of the school's Advancement Through Individual Determination (AVID) program, which works with low-income, and/or first-generation English speakers/college seekers to help them gain the skills and confidence they need to make it to college.

Honestly, I love working with these students. That's because unlike many of my clients, they've already experienced so much of the world -- both good and bad -- in their relatively short lives. They're also quite willing to be honest and vulnerable about their personal truths, something that can make a big difference in an admissions essay.

On my first day together, I suggested an ice-breaker exercise so I could get to know each student a bit. 

“Tell me one thing about you that I am not likely to forget,” I asked. I told them I wasn't necessarily looking for anything deep--just some interesting or colorful fact.

Interestingly, the students were eager to open up. One student, a Filipina, told me how she's often mistaken for being Latina. A second told me she always wears black. Another described how she comes from a family with seven siblings. Still another told me about her obsession with death--understandable, once she revealed that a close friend of hers had recently and tragically died.

Mid-way through our exercise, I came to a rather timid but quietly self-possessed student. "I have to crawl through the trunk of my Toyota to unlock it," Julietta said.

It was such an odd, specific, but memorable detail, I had to get the whole story.

She explained how every time she wants to get into her car she has to pop open the trunk and scooch through the back seat. At some along the line, before she’d bought this particular Toyota Corolla, it had been struck by lightening. Now, several electronic components, including the key release, no longer worked properly.

Luckily for Julietta, that flaw meant the car was much more affordable. She didn't care if she had to do a bit of extra work to get inside it. Where other people saw flaws--or obstacles--she saw opportunities. 

Later on, I learned that having a car was a huge deal in her family. For a long time before that car, her mother, siblings, and Julietta all had to rely on her step-father's truck, and it sounded like he didn't much believe in a woman's independence.

Before she'd gotten the car, Julietta would take the bus downtown after school so she could participate in a teen-led grant-making program providing grants to important local initiatives. Other evenings she worked--either as a babysitter or at a local eatery. Most nights she didn't get home till 9 PM, which is when she'd start her homework. And yet she still managed to be a stellar student.

It turned out that she'd pooled together the money from both jobs for several months, saving enough to make the down-payment on this car. Her mother had lent her the rest of the money. Now, she could take her mother to her shifts at a McDonald's. But she was also teaching her mother to drive--all without her step-father knowing.  

I was particularly excited about Julietta's story, and the promising admissions essay it could become. There was the quirky, almost random first sentence, followed by a story about a malfunctioning—but inexpensive—car. That anecdote then opened up into a larger story about obstacles and perseverance. 

As of this writing, Julietta is still shaping that larger story. Still, working with her reminded me that it's one thing to write a personal statement about some vague concept like "determination," and quite another to illustrate this trait through a compelling and memorable story.

And that quirky detail about the lengths she has to go to get into her car? That pulled me right in.

The famous (or perhaps I should write infamous) editor and writing coach Gordon Lish used to tell his students that every line in a story should grow out of the first. Although that feels somewhat overly-determined for my taste, I do think there’s something to his logic. A great first sentence makes it easy for you to keep writing. Just as it makes it easy for the reader to keep reading.


*Name changed.