Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Guest Post: What Makes a Good First Sentence

I’m standing in front of my bookshelves, pulling out some of the volumes and reading through the first sentences. “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” That’s Jane Eyre. “London.” That’s Bleak House. “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between. Further along, there’s a sentence I know only in translation: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” That’s Gregory Rabassa, the translator of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude.

If Brontë, Dickens, Hartley, and Marquez were publishing today, they would have made their agents and editors happy. Their opening words grab us right away and hit the jackpot: they make us want to read more.

For writers trying to catch the attention of an agent, an editor, or a reader, the first sentence is crucial. Some agents say that they are actually more patient readers than the writing world gives them credit for. Still, we writers agonize. We want to create something that intrigues, that stands out, that suggests something of our unique writing style. But how do we achieve that? I thought a small sampling of great opening sentences might give some lessons on how to hook a reader.

The best openings seem to fall into a few categories.

The universal truth

Tolstoy starts Anna Karenina with his famous statement about the difference between happy and unhappy families. I don’t know how the original Russian goes, but there’s nothing distinctive about the language of the translation. Nor is there anything special about Hartley’s opener about the strangeness of the past. But the idea is interesting and takes a moment to grasp. That first sentence tells us that the book we’re reading is about memory and isolation.

The quick mystery

It takes Brontë only ten words to unsettle us. She shoots down possibility as soon as she raises it. Why is there no possibility? Where are we? What day are we talking about? Why is “that day” so memorable that she’s referring to it that way? And who, after all, is talking?—because we know right away that this is no omniscient narrator. Ann Patchett does it almost as simply as Brontë: “When the lights went out, the accompanist kissed her.” We immediately want to know about that relationship, the setting, the ensuing plot. Marquez takes a little longer, but the effect is an intense dislocation. Later than what? Later than when? Why are they shooting the colonel, and why? How do you discover something that’s been around forever? Marquez’s first sentence signals the way his novel goes on to fold time over and blur the personal and the historical.

The style icon

There are lots of great ones here, one of them from a book I never finished and didn’t particularly like. But I’ve never forgotten the start of Gravity’s Rainbow: “A screaming comes across the sky.” That generates almost enough curiosity to carry a reader through hundreds of Pynchon’s pages. Take Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, considered by many to be one of The Perfect Novels. “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” You have to pay attention to a voice and an attitude like that. Then “The Dead”: “Lily the caretaker’s daughter was literally swept off her feet.” A classic case of first-person limited, signaled by Lily’s error of usage. And my sentimental favorite from Tom Drury’s The End of Vandalism: “One fall they held the blood drive in the fire barn at Grafton.” It’s a novel about straightforward people, and its first sentence has only one word with more than one syllable, and that’s the name of the town.

These aren’t the only kinds of successful first sentences. Others sow a seed of doubt in the writer or the setting; still others introduce the elements of the plot right away; every now and then, a first line is spoken to us, in dialogue. It’s not even requisite for an excellent novel to have a catchy start. Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, for instance, starts with a rather mundane sentence about a series of emails.

If these many sentences have anything in common, it’s that they alert us that something special is going on: that the writer is in control. A good first sentence places the reader squarely in the writer’s grasp, either because the voice is enticing or because the story seems–it’s too soon to know for sure–compelling. One way or another, through tone or voice or language or plot, a good opener makes the reader unable to resist the novel’s pull. No pressure, but that’s all we writers have to do.

What are some of your favorite first sentences? And, unless they’re the same, which novel openers have you found most effective?

Henriette Lazaridis Power's work has appeared in Salamander, the New England Review, The New York Times online, The Millions, Rowing News, and Writer 2.0. She is the founding editor of The Drum, a literary magazine publishing short fiction, novel excerpts, and essays exclusively in audio form.

26 comments:

  1. I am woe to add to your amazing list. So, I will not. Instead I thank you for citing first sentences in books many fools believe would never be published today. The long, lovely prose of the Bronte sisters, the indredible descriptions and characters of Dickens.

    While we think we are conditioned to the fast, clipped language of the current-day thriller, we are not so far from loving what is and what was good in reading.

    And when the word is good, we can sit back and enjoy. Thanks so much for this post.

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  2. "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good gortune must be in want of a wife."

    Jane Austen -- PRIDE AND PREJUDICE

    My all time favorite first line.

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  3. "Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last," Sena Jeter Naslund, AHAB'S WIFE.

    That sentence carries one over 600 pages before finding out who's the third husband.

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  4. The Book Thief (its more like second sentence but yeah, just grabs me)

    "Here is a small fact: you are going to die"

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  5. When I'm thinking of awesome first lines, I always think of John Scalzi, a modern master of the form.

    OLD MAN'S WAR: I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife's grave. Then I joined the army.

    THE LAST COLONY: Let me tell you of the worlds I've left behind.

    THE ANDROID'S DREAM: Dirk Moeller didn't know if he could fart his way into a major diplomatic incident. But he was ready to find out.

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  6. A great post. Just two weeks ago, I had my own semi-(or rather quarter-)scientific look at first sentences. I took 75 examples in novels, mostly 20th century, mostly crime, and looked how they were done.

    The most important lesson? The safest way to start a novel is by introducing a character, either in combination with a place, some action, or both.

    When a novel starts without either of the three, the tone becomes ominous as in Dan Brown's Lost Symbol: The secret is how to die. Or Ken Kesey's One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest: They're out there. It may look like a great effect at first, but I found it gimmicky after a while.

    So, for me it's character and place, or character and action like this one:

    Mix was standing where the street should have been. -- Ruth Rendell, Thirteen Steps Down

    They threw me off the hay truck around noon. James M. Cain -- The Postman Always Rings Twice

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  7. I like a good first sentence, but I'd rather have a mundane first sentence than a first sentence that is clearly written trying to be a good first sentence. I hate an overwritten first sentence and have quit a novel on that one line alone.

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  8. I prefer when a novel doesn't try to establish character in the first sentence. Novice writers, I have found, try to pack too much information in that one sentence. Name, location, looks, action. If a writer is going to do this, it needs to be memorable enough, interesting enough. Too many times have I seen something along the lines of, "Sarah pushed her long black hair from her face as she looked into the wind at the edge of the cliff." Now, if you infuse it with the possibility of her jumping, I might be intrigued. At this point though, I'm not intrigued enough to find out why she is standing on the cliff. Luckily I read more than the first sentence, so the first paragraph better be pretty good too.
    Here's an example of the character setup that I did like, from "Match Me if you Can" by Susan Elizabeth Phillips: "If Annabelle hadn't found a body lying under "Sherman," she wouldn't have been late for her appointment with the Python." Hm... intrigue.

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  9. My all time favorite first line comes from M. T. Anderson's FEED: "We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck."

    When I read that the first time, I knew I was in for a treat.

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  10. I've been analyzing first lines of novels a lot lately and have compiled some of them on my blog. While I'm finding my own study of first lines helpful as I revise the opening of my WIP, it's also been interesting to discover how much people have enjoyed reading the lists. There's magic in those words! One person said she'd been told that a first line should contain the DNA for a novel—a great way to think about it.

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  11. I agree with the dear Mr. Selby: I love a well-crafted sentence, first or otherwise, but I hate it when a first sentence tries too darn hard. I will invariably read past it, but a show-offy first sentence does a big chunk of damage to my trust in a writer.

    (Of course, that's really personal preference. :D)

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  12. Well, there's one agent out there who uses only first lines to judge a novel's potential and accepts submissions of first lines only.

    Check out Hannah Rogers' website

    *please, people, parody...*

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  13. "'I've watched through his eyes, I've listened through his ears, and I tell you he's the one.'"

    Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

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  14. Great post.

    I agree with Piedmont Writer: first line of Pride and Prejudice is my favorite!

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  15. Wow. Enjoying the perspective. I'm in agreement that whatever your story is, the "tone" had better be set in the first line--and a hint at action too it seems, from everyone here.

    Thanks for the post!

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  16. What a helpful post! When I move onto edits, I will most definitely reread this and analyze the bejesus out of my opener.

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  17. Control: that's a good way to put it. These sentences are all wildly different, but each has a structure that indicates the author was perfectly in control of the language.

    My favorite novel has two opening lines, because the first chapter is a weird metafictional thing before the "real" story: "All this happened, more or less." and "Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time." from SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE.

    And a classic: "Call me Ishmael." from MOBY-DICK.

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  18. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides has one of my favorites:

    "I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974."

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  19. One of my favorite first lines - possibly my favorite first line ever - comes from A DARKNESS FORGED IN FIRE by Chris Evans.

    "Mountains shouldn't scream, but this one did."

    Even after having read the book twice, I still pause and go 'wait, what?' How does a mountain scream? And why is this one doing so? And where is this one? And...

    Yeah.

    Really good book, the first volume of his Iron Elves series. (Volume 2 is out already, and volume 3 is due out later this year.)

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  20. Here are two of my favorites:

    "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen"
    --1984, George Orwell

    "Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton"
    The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway

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  21. Can't believe no one mentioned: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" from Tale of Two Cities.

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  22. Or simply:
    I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.
    Out of Africa, Isak Dinesen

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  23. My first thought when I read this post was: Dick Francis has wonderful first lines. I promptly pulled a stack of his books off the shelf to get some quotes only to realize that his first lines were only good, but his opening paragraphs were awesome.

    I think the effect on the reader is similar, but this neatly circumvents the problem of the first line trying to hard.

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  24. My top 3 favs:

    It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. —Jane Austen


    Once upon a time there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person. —Anne Tyler


    It is so appropriate to color hope yellow, like that sun we seldom saw. —V. C. Andrews

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