You walk into a party, and scope out someone you’d like to know. Walking up to them, you say the first thing you can think of. “Fat penguin.” If the person replies, “Is that what you always say when you want to break the ice?” then you know that you’ve met someone who thinks like you. If they smile politely and walk away…well, that tells you something, too.
The first sentence in a book is a lot like a pick up line at a party. It should tell us something. It should make a promise to the reader of what’s to come.
Real life doesn’t always make and keep promises. I think the first thing I ever said to my husband was, “I’m Kristy. I’m from Washington, and I’m studying English.” His response included something about zoology, which led to a discussion about how the study of zoology has very little to do with actual zoo-keeping. It’s hard to imagine how such a boring and mundane conversation led to 30+ years of marriage and six children. In real life, we can start off boring and bumbling and generally, most kind people will give us a second-go-around.
With books—not so much. We have a paragraph or two to win a reader. After all, books don’t have the added of benefits of blue eyes and well-fitting jeans. Like the topic sentences of our school day essays, the first sentence of a book shoulders a heavy burden. It needs to make a promise and reflect the over-all tone and theme of the story.
Here are several of my favorite first sentences (no surprise that they are all my own.)
New York City’s night noises seeped through the wall chinks and window: the jingle of horse harnesses, the stomping of hooves, the mournful howl of a dog, but one noise, a noise that didn’t belong, jarred Mercy awake.(Stealing Mercy) This sentence promises danger and suspense. We also know that this is a plot driven novel with a historical setting.
Penny loved Richard and she adored Rose, but her feelings toward pralines and cream were mediocre at best. She didn’t want to look like a giant pralines and cream ice cream cone on Rose’s wedding day.(Losing Penny) This is a character driven story and this particular character has weight issues and a sense of humor.
“A lemon that’s been squeezed too many times ends up in the compost pile…” I started out strong, but my words faded away when I noticed Savannah Everett’s father staring at me. He stood beside a cart filled with vegetables, grinning, as if he had caught me in my lie.(Hailey’s Comments) What do we learn? That our main character is living a lie, and some grinning man has discovered it.
Notice how all promise a different reading experience. Think of the first sentence as a movie trailer. If we see a trailer with Tom Cruise carrying a gun–things had better blow up and if they don’t, as a movie goer, we’re going to be mad. Same thing with a book. The first sentence makes a promise of what’s to come. Of course, writers can’t rest on one good sentence. The first sentence has to be followed by a whole string of sentences to keep us turning to the last page.
Here are some brilliant first sentences.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, (A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens)
I began these pages for myself, in order to think out my own particular patterns of living, (Gifts from the Sea, Lindberg)
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. (Pride and Prejudice, Austin)
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. (1981, Orwell)
There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. (C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader)
I put my own sentences cheek to cheek with Austin and Lewis, not because I feel that my work is in anyway comparable, but because I can freely talk about my own writerly intentions. I wouldn’t dare to presume to know the thoughts or intents of the literary great…all I can say is they wrote darn good sentences—first and otherwise.
If you have a first sentence you’d like to share, please leave it in the comment box, along with your title, name, and buy link (just in case we’re so intrigued with your story that we want to read until the very last page.)