First sentences from classic and contemporary literature analyzed.
by Ruth Harris
No matter what genre you write, your first sentence is a seduction. It can be in the form of an invitation. A declaration. A tease. A promise. A jolt. A shock.
You must be shameless and your first sentence must be irresistible. It must induce curiosity and promise the answer to an urgent question.
You must do whatever you can to lure your reader into the web you’ve woven by writing a sentence so provocative and so powerful that s/he is compelled to continue.
You’re the master of ceremonies and in your first sentence you must present yourself and your book with confidence and authority. If you’ve written a thriller, your first sentence must promise thrills. If you’ve written a romance, your first sentence must promise romance.
Just like a nothingburger cover or a meh blurb, a clunky or poorly-conceived first sentence that’s inconsistent with your genre, will turn readers off and cause them to skip your book.
Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, romance or sci fi, a thriller or a mystery, the first sentence of your book must achieve one goal: compel the reader to read on.
Stephen King has said that he spends “months and years” creating that first line. He goes on to say: “An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”
The question is, how do we accomplish all this in one sentence? From Moby Dick’s “Call me Ishmael” to Charles Dickens’ “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” some first sentences have become famous classics. So, too, Jane Austen’s “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
A deeper look into the breadth of masterful first sentences offers a wide array of the ways writers draw readers into their stories and inspiring examples of how much information can be conveyed in a single sentence.
The First Person Introduction.
In a memoir or a novel written in the first person, the author puts himself in the mind of the central character and, in one way or another, tells us that we are about to get the real deal. No BS here, the sentence promises, just the honest, unvarnished truth about someone we want to know more about.
Sylvia Plath uses the first sentence of The Bell Jar, to establish the nervous, dark mood that hovers over the character and the story. Her story begins—
“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”
Plath’s use of the word electrocuted provides an unexpected jolt and mention of the Rosenbergs sets a time (June 1953). Sultry summer sets an uncomfortable season, New York establishes a place, and the final phrase conveys the uncertainty of a young woman struggling to find an identity and a place in life.
Vladimir Nabokov uses the first nine words of Lolita to convey the note of obsessive erotic desire that pulses through the entire novel.
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.”
Nabokov begins by naming the object of his passion, the word light expresses her transformative influence on the narrator, the word loins promises that we will be reading a story about sex, and the repetition of the letter l creates the feeling of an incantation.
In Ghostwriters In The Sky, Book 1 of The Camilla Randall Mysteries, Anne uses her first sentence to introduce the MC, locate the place (the subway can only mean NYC), and refer to the season (sweaty indicates hot, most likely summer).
“The subway car was so crowded I couldn’t tell which one of the sweaty men pressing against me was attached to the hand now creeping up my thigh.”
The phrase “creeping up my thigh” indicates a level of unwanted personal attention which places the character in an uncomfortable, if rather ludicrous situation—a theme that will be repeated in different variations throughout the novel.
In Catcher In the Rye, J.D. Salinger uses an effective but contradictory combination of bravado and vulnerability to establish a unique voice as he introduces us to preppy Holden Caulfield.
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
We read on because Salinger’s confessional tone makes us want to know more about his lousy childhood and find out why he doesn’t feel like going into it.
The Third Person Introduction.
In Goldfinger, Ian Fleming introduces 007 in the first sentence.
“James Bond, with two double bourbons inside him, sat in the final departure lounge of Miami airport and thought about life and death.”
Fleming has told us in only a few words that his MC is a drinking man, one who travels, and one who contemplates the larger questions of existence. Where, we wonder, is Bond going, what is he going to do once he gets there, and why does he need to down two double bourbons before he boards his flight?
In The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien simply tells us where his MC lives, but in such a startling way that we feel compelled to read on.
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
A hobbit? A story about a creature who lives in a hole? Who or what is this hobbit and why does he live in a hole. Curious, we read on.
I introduce DeeDee Dahlen, the MC in Love And Money, Book 1 of the Park Avenue Series with a brief, declarative sentence.
“Her name was DeeDee Dahlen and she was famous from the day she was born.”
How can a newly-born infant be famous?, the reader wonders. What rewards—and penalties—does unasked-for celebrity impose? What secrets and scandal will shadow her future?—urgent questions that will reverberate throughout the entire novel.
Graham Greene, in Brighton Rock, compels us to want to know more.
“Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.”
Who are the ‘they?’ we wonder. And what has Hale done? Why do ‘they’ want to kill him?
Gabriel Garcia Marquez begins One Hundred Years of Solitude with this famous sentence—
“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.”
The author uses a shocking situation—a man facing a firing squad—plus a long-ago memory to pique our curiosity. Who is the Colonel and what had he done that he ends up facing a firing squad? What was there about the discovery of ice that it has lodged so forcefully in his memory? Compelling questions to which we must find the answer and, thus, we continue to read.
Whether classic literature, hard-boiled pulp fiction, or cyberpunk scifi, the first sentence establishes a theme that will continue throughout the story. If the book does not follow through on the promise of that first sentence, the disappointed reader will feel cheated.
In his first sentence, Leo Tolstoy in Anna Karenina tells us that we are about to read a story about an unhappy family.
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Why, we ask ourselves, are they unhappy? What has happened to them and what will they do? Powerful questions the reader wants answered.
James Matthew Barrie establishes the theme of Peter Pan with a brief, declarative statement.
“All children, except one, grow up.”
Which child, we wonder. Why not? And what will happen to a child who doesn’t grow up?
A far different theme is set by Franz Kafka in his posthumously published 1925 novel, The Trial.
Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.
Kafka’s first sentence thrusts us immediately into the MC’s waking nightmare of terror and paranoia that will be sustained throughout the story.
William Gibson’s Neuromancer was the first novel to win the Nebula Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, and the Hugo Award. The chilling first sentence, said to have been written at the last minute, sets the novel’s theme of a burnt-out computer hacker adrift in a dystopian near future governed by artificial intelligence.
“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
Hunter S Thompson, starts his novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by establishing a place, a mood, and a theme (a disenchanted retrospective look at the 1960s) in the first sentence.
“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”
A Tease, a Shock, a Jolt.
A skillfully written first sentence containing a tease, a shock or a jolt can introduce a character, establish a tone or a setting, and dare the reader not to continue.
The first sentence of Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell’s dystopian novel, often considered one of the best one hundred books of the 20th Century, tells us immediately that something—time itself—is awry in a future world of Big Brother, doublethink and government surveillance.
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
Joe Konrath pulls us right into the action in the first sentence of his mystery thriller, Dirty Martini, Book 4 of the Jacqueline “Jack” Daniels Mystery series.
“No security cameras this time, but he still has to be careful.”
What is he doing, we wonder? In his first sentence, Konrath lets us know that whatever it is, it’s something he’s done before. Something risky, perhaps dangerous, and, even though experienced, he still has to be careful. Of what? Of whom?
In his legal thriller, The Firm, John Grisham uses his first sentence to tell us that this unnamed and mysterious senior partner will indeed find something to dislike about Mitchell Y. McDeere who, the word résumé indicates, is being considered for a job.
“The senior partner studied the résumé for the hundredth time and again found nothing he disliked about Mitchell Y. McDeere, at least not on paper.”
What kind of job, we wonder, and what will the senior partner find to dislike? Grisham’s tease promises evil doings and the reader is lured on.
In L.A. Confidential, James Ellroy’s first sentence introduces a main character, sets a theme, and tells us exactly what we are about to read. Ellroy uses a knowledgable tone and vernacular language to let us know that he knows what he’s talking about.
“An abandoned auto court in the San Berdoo foothills; Buzz Meeks checked in with ninety-four thousand dollars, eighteen pounds of high-grade heroin, a 10-gauge pump, a .38 special, a .45 automatic, and a switchblade he’d bought off a pachuco at the border—right before he spotted the car parked across the line: Mickey Cohen goons in an LAPD unmarked, Tijuana cops standing by to bootsack his goodies, dump his body in the San Ysidro River.”
Dennis Lehane, in his short story, Until Gwen pulls us in with the use of the second person combined with the promise of drugs and sex.
“Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon, with an 8-ball of coke in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat.”
The Rule Breakers.
Although writers are often cautioned about starting a book with a character’s dream, that rule was effectively broken in the classic first sentence of Daphne DuMaurier’s famous gothic mystery, Rebecca.
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
Marie Force begins her Gansett Island romance, Meant For Love, with a reference to a dream.
“The dream was always the same, the last perfect moment before life as Jenny Wilks knew it changed forever.”
Both dreams refer to emotionally significant aspects of the characters’ pasts. The reader wonders why the unidentified first-person narrator of Rebecca dreams of a place and Jenny Wilks of a “perfect” life now gone forever. The authors use dreams to provoke interest in their characters and in the events of the story to come.
The passive tense is usually considered to be another no-no. Charles McCarry, in TheTears Of Autumn,considered to be one of the best espionage thrillers of the 20th Century, uses the passive tense to introduce American intelligence officer, Paul Christopher, who is investigating the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
“Paul Christopher had been loved by two women who could not understand why he had stopped writing poetry.”
McCarry’s elegant use of the passive tense to introduce his MC sets the theme of the book: an exploration of glittering promise that results in the wreckage of unintended consequences—the end of poetry and the end of Camelot.
Your first sentence is your opportunity to let your creativity shine. Whether you decide to go for a tease or a jolt, a theme or a rule breaker, a first person or third person introduction, remember what Mom always said: You never have a second chance to make a first impression.
by Ruth Harris (@RuthHarrisBooks) April 29, 2018
What about you, scriveners? Do you have a favorite first line? Do you find your first line hard to write? (I usually write mine last.) Do you have a dynamite first line for a book you haven’t written yet?
This week Anne is Poisoning People for Fun and Profit again. This time she’s talking about Gelsemium, a pretty plant that may be growing in your own backyard. And is so deadly it’s the drug of choice of many professional assassins. It also nearly killed Arthur Conan Doyle.
BOOK OF THE WEEK
Central Coasters: Don’t miss the “Writers in Action: From Idea to Publication” Workshop on May 19th! 1-day workshop by Sisters in Crime, Central Coast at the PG&E Energy Center in San Luis Obispo. Should be a lot of fun. Here’s a link to the application form and lunch menu.
Red Hen Press annual Nonfiction Contest. $25 entry FEE. $1,000 prize and publication by the prestigious Red Hen Press. They’re looking for an essay collection, memoir, or book of narrative nonfiction. Florencia Ramirez will judge. Using the online submission system, submit a manuscript of at least 150 pages. Deadline April 30
CRAFT Literary Short Story contest. $20 FEE. Short fiction up to 6000 words. $2000 first prize; the two runners-up will receive $500 and $300, respectively. plus publication in CRAFT Literary Magazine. Deadline April 30th.
Mad Scientist Journal: Battling in All Her Finery. Genre: Speculative fiction stories about women leaders in any field. Payment: 2 cents/word. Deadline: April 30, 2018.
13 Imprints of Big 5 publishers who take unagented submissions. From the good people at Authors Publish Magazine.
Supernatural Fiction Award: $1000 prize + publication in The Ghost Story magazine. Not just ghost stories. Any paranormal story welcome. 1500-10,000 words $20 entry fee. Deadline April 30th.
Prophecy Creek Book Award for Speculative Fiction. Prize $1,000 and publication by Hidden River Publishing. Any length novel that includes elements of science fiction, supernatural fiction, or fantasy. $22 fee. Deadline May 15.
Smokelong Quarterly Flash Fiction contest. $13 Fee. Under 1000 words. Nominates for Pushcart. Must never have been published (including on blogs.) $1500 prize plus publication. Runner-up prizes, too. Deadline May 20th.
Nowhere Spring Travel Writing Contest $10 Fee. 800-5000 words showing a powerful sense of place: Fiction or nonfiction. Previous publication okay. $1000 prize plus publication in Nowhere magazine. Deadline May 31st