“Where’s Papa going with that axe?”

“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

 –E B White, Charlotte’s Web

To succeed in the fundraising business, we all need to be master story tellers. Really great stories start with powerful opening lines.

Every fundraising letter, email appeal, or blog post you write has to begin with a sentence that hooks your reader, pulls her in and makes him want to know more.

If you lose your reader in your first sentence, you lose everything. The only goal of your first sentence is to make the reader want to read on.

While opening sentences and paragraphs are critical for fundraising appeals via direct mail, once you take your copy online, the first lines of your email appeals or blog posts are “make it-or break it.”

Stephen King Writing Opening Sentences

Even the pro’s admit that writing opening sentences is challenging. Don’t think for a minute that you’re off the hook because you’re only writing a fundraising appeal rather than a novel. Copywriters and novelists alike say it takes practice and a lot of versions to get a great opening line. There are no tried and true rules for writing opening lines, but here are some tips for getting started honing your skills.

  • Use rich, sensory details, such as:
    • “When children are thirsty, it doesn’t matter if a river is clouded and polluted, they’ll drink from it.”
    • “Last week, Grand Junction’s News Channel 5 pulled back the curtain on the cruel and unsporting world of captive hunts – private ranches where semi-tame animals are stocked in fenced enclosures to be shot for trophies by paying customers.”
  • Make it about your donor, not you. The biggest hook is when your reader sees themselves, or who they would like to be, in your copy writing. Example: “This huge victory for wolves would not have been possible without your support.”
  • Open with one, not millions. One million children starving doesn’t have nearly the impact that the story of “one child with vacant eyes howling from the pain of hunger,” will have. One and half million refugees is easier to relate to when seen through the story of “a young father that escaped with only the shirt on his back and nothing else to provide for his family.”
  • Connect your opening line to your call-to-action. Sometimes your call-to-action comes in the first paragraph or two. Even if your call-to-action comes later in your copy, make sure your opening line isn’t completely disconnected from the “why and what” of your call-to-action. There needs to be a logical progression of your story and the role your donor plays in that story.
  • Get inspired. Learn the craft of writing opening sentences from some of the most memorable opening lines of novels that convinced you to continue reading. Here are some of ours, and yes, some are from children’s books, like Charlotte’s Web above.

“It was a dark and stormy night.” –Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time (Snoopy did not write this line first. Madeleine L’Engle did.) CORRECTION: Apparently this opening line has legs. A kind reader pointed out that this opening line was actually first written by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1830. Then Madeleine L’Engle, then Snoopy.

“When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.” –Harper Lee To Kill a Mockingbird

“It was the best of times and the worst of times.” – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

“I remember when polio was the worst thing in the world.” – Joe Brainard

“Not every 13-year-old girl is accused of murder, brought to trial, and found guilty.” –Avi, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle

“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” –E.B White, Charlotte’s Web

“In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.” Genesis 1

“You better not never tell nobody but God.”–Alice Walker, The Color Purple

“They shoot the white girl first.” Toni Morrison, Paradise

What are some opening lines that got you hooked?