What’s in a First Sentence?

I’ve been meaning to analyze first sentences for awhile now. I don’t know why except that I still hear annoying writers-conference voices in my head telling me that I’ve got to hook the reader with a wowza first sentence.

But, let’s think about this. By “reader” most instructors really mean agents and editors. In the real world, do you depend on a novel’s first sentence to entice you into it? Or the flap copy? I go by flap copy if I don’t know the author’s work.

To start, here are the first sentences from my four unsung novels — please note, in various states of draftiness(!).

When the doorbell rings, I duck under windows that are oiled for easy escape.

Later, Marcus Tully will overhear snippets of conversation about Liam the Matchmaker’s birthday party, not to mention rumors about a most shocking death.

Circling around the Marin Headlands from Bodega Bay and Stinson Beach, hills smelling of anise and sunburned grass undulate in a slow descent toward a favorite pot-smoking spot called the Bunkers.

On a Tuesday afternoon, mid-September, locals marked the day fog followed Gray Man down a rural lane near Lisfenora village.

Now, here are ten first sentences off my bookshelf. I chose mainstream novels at random, some mysteries, some not.

Only three people were left under the red and white awning of the grease joint: Grady, me, and the fry cook.

–Prologue, Water for Elephants, Sarah Gruen

Last week I found a letter from you.

–Prologue, The Various Haunts of Men, Susan Hill

The lake in my dreams is always frozen.

–Prologue, The Lake of dead Languages, Carol Goodman

I spot her as soon as I get off the elevator on the fourth floor.

–Chapter 1, Origin, Diana Abu-Jaber

A sealed envelope is an enigma containing further enigmas.

–Chapter 1, The Flanders Panel, Arturo Perez-Reverte

It was November.

–Chapter 1, The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield

This story begins in a city of bones.

–Prologue, Sepulchre, Kate Mosse

Terry Hewitt had never been as afraid as he was now.

–Chapter 1, Slip of the Knife, Denise Mina

Later, when it was over, he cast his thoughts back to that sunstruck May day in Cambridge–where it had all begun–and asked himself whether he would have done anything differently, knowing what he now did.

–Prologue, The Savage Garden, Mark Mills

If Ignaz Stapel hadn’t been so afraid of his father, he would have reported the incident and perhaps saved the lives of all the people who were to die as a consequence of it.

–Prologue, City of Shadows, Ariana Franklin

As an afternote, from one gynormous commercial blockbuster:

Renowned curator Jacques Sauniere staggered through the valuted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.

–Prologue, The DaVinci Code, Dan Brown
(Don’t hate me because this is on my shelf!)

And from one Pulitzer Prize winner:

When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.

–Chapter 1, The Road, Cormac McCarthy

Do I come to any conclusions? Not really except that I need to work on mine some more. Some came within prologues, some not. First person, third, and omniscient.

Some of the first sentences are surprisingly simple — that’s the big thing I take note of for my writing. All in all, most of them give intriguing hints of mysteries/conflicts come, don’t they? On the other hand, seems to me that in the world of publishing novelists, anything goes for a first sentence.

Dan Brown’s is the least interesting to me even though, supposedly, as a commercial thriller , it ought to have the most wowza-hook of an opening. It lacks the finesse of the previously listed mysterioso beginnings.

What do you think? What are some of your first sentences?

Stuck in a Twin Paradox

Congratulate me on my first draft: I officially reached 400 pages while loitering here at Twin Paradox. Actually, I’m stuck. Not for words, luckily, but for a ride because my trusty red steed is undergoing a major tune-up.

Twin Paradox gets me thinking about paradoxes in general. For example: I accomplish my best writing in the morning, yet I’m not a morning person. What’s that all about?

The fact that I can conceptualize an abstract idea like “paradox” leads me to ponder our oversized homo sapien brains. I know mine’s a strange and fascinating organ-slash-tool-slash-inner-space. On the days I roll over for more sleep, I’m not using it well — choosing  the easy path. I’ve gotta face reality: Using my brain is hard work; most of the time I’d prefer to coast on previously wired synaptic pathways rather than choose the healthier, self-improving, harder paths (like getting out of bed).

From that thought, my brain (or is it “my mind”?) just skipped over to a wonderful book called An Alchemy of Mind, The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain by Diane Ackerman. I recommend her for anyone inclined toward naturalism, creative nonfiction, new twists on fascinating topics, and lush language.

I think this post will circle back around, so bear with me. (On the other hand, I have time on my hands so “blather” might be the theme of the day.) Last night I read the following in Ackerman’s book, from a section entitled “Shakespeare on the Brain”:

Another angle on Shakespeare’s brain is that he wasn’t good at inventing plots. He elaborated them cleverly once he had them, but for the most part he borrowed plots from historical sources. As I understand, sadly, plotting requires a special cast of mind. Give me a ready-made plot and I’ll have fun elaborating it. Ask me to make phrases until the cows come home, and I’m happy. Invite me to describe a gesture or set a scene or develope an idea or explore someone’s psycho —

Oops, my mechanic called much earlier than expected! I’ll have to — NO! I CHOOSE to — leave you on a cliffhanger. Stay tuned Monday; we’ll see if this ramble was indeed leading somewhere.