What’s in a First Sentence?

Posted by on Oct 13, 2008 in Writing | 8 comments

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?

8 Comments

  1. Oil a window for easy escape! I’m hooked already.

    As for me, I’ve just been convinced to hack off the first two laboriously written paragraphs of my novel and start with this instead:
    “Even when Jamie smoked, the first few breaths inside 423 Dale Ave. were best if they were shallow.”

  2. Great post, Lisa. I was hooked by the one of yours that began “Later …”. I immediately wanted to know if that was later, what was happening now and I wanted to read more.

    As for the first line of the books off your bookshelf, well what a mish-mash. Many of them, but not all, contain an encapsulation of the story, while others are just a very mild preface (“It was November”).

  3. Okay, confession: I don’t like to read flap copy first. I try my best to avoid it when I am deciding on reading a book. But the first sentence — the first paragraph, the first page — is absolutely essential to whether or not I will read the book. I always read that before getting a book from a library or store (and online like on Amazon, you can see sample pages, which is like the same thing). If I am not “hooked” by the opening, not intrigued in some way by the writing or the characters or the subject glimpsed on the first page, I don’t get the book.

    I usually read the first page or so first and then maybe I’ll take a peek at the flap copy. Or maybe I’ll read the flaps about a chapter in, to see where I’m headed.

    Flap copy is often misleading, always trying to make the book sound better than it is. Good flaps can make any badly written story sound amazing. Or the flaps can make me think I’m about to read a certain kind of book and it turns out to not be that at all. I see that from working in publishing — sometimes the editorial assistants write the oddest flaps that just completely misinterpret the manuscript. Also, often the flaps reveal some key part of the story that I’d rather discover on my own. I’d rather trust the writer to set up his or her own story than some random EA.

    Does that sound mean? I realize some publishing companies have professional copywriters, so I’m not being too fair. Still…

    As for your sentences, I also like the windows oiled for easy escape! What happens next??

  4. Tracer, I usually have to hack off junk, also. Your sentence is good — gets us right in there with your character.

    Thanks, Charlotte! That “Later…” first sentence was probably the most painful to come up with…Glad it intrigued you!

    You make sense, total sense, nova, especially since I was once one of those editorial schlubs writing flap copy! You’re not being mean. In fact, why AM I reading the blasted flap copy?!?!?

  5. I also thought your oiled windows sentence was the strongest. What a visual image it produces! I’m not convinced there is a tried and true recipe for first sentences in novels other than that it must contain words that pull you from your setting into this other fictionalized world. And the key word here is “pull.” It’s a visceral experience. And that’s why your oiled windows sentence works so well. Suddenly, I’m not at my computer reading a blog, but I’m in a house watching someone who, at the first alarm, will noiselessly ease up the window and make a quick escape.

    Personally, I go for shorter first sentences. But not always. Sometimes it takes more than twenty words to pull you into that new world.

    I enjoyed your post and all the comments.

  6. Thanks, Tanya. I’m glad that one’s winning the “race,” because that’s the novel I’m currently revising!

  7. Eek! You are no schlub!

  8. Nova: Oh, but I used to be!!

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