I recently came across a feature in Poets & Writers, entitled Page One: Where New and Noteworthy Books Begin, which offered P&W’s editorial staff’s selection of exceptional first sentences in recently released books. While style and content preferences are subjective, simply stated, a first sentence should draw the reader in and set the tone. Here are a couple of openings, plucked from the article, that do exactly that:
“Ronnie swore it was talk and nothing more.” From Late One Night, by Lee Martin. And:
“Ten years ago, I helped a handful of men take my brother’s life.” The Reactive, by Masande Ntshanga.
Both of these strong sentences make me want to read further. They predict violence and strife and soured relationships. They tell me that an interesting story’s coming.
This one, I’m not so crazy about:
“In June, the book club was at Zoe’s house, which meant that Elizabeth had to carry her heavy ceramic bowl of spinach salad with walnuts and bits of crumbled goat cheese a grand total of half a block.” Modern Lovers, Emma Straub.
This is all over the place—two names, three types of food, a book club, and a walk. I’m not drawn in. I don’t care about Elizabeth and her heavy bowl. It sets the tone, but it’s not something I want inside my head.
Also, this next one bothers me; however, it is translated from French, so maybe that’s the reason for the befuddling lack of color:
“She was Malinka again the moment she got on the train, and she found it neither a pleasure nor a burden, having long since stopped noticing.” Ladivine, Marie NDiaye.
The lack of clarity is unsatisfying. I reread it, feeling that I’ve missed something. I’m put off that Malinka seems at ease with her duplicity. I’d read a little further in this one, though, because the mystery (why does she change to Malinka on the train?) interests me.
There are certain openings that are so offensive that I read no further.
Foul language is a turnoff. Because vulgarity signals a lack of vocabulary and imagination, not to mention a lack of taste, my thought when I find a “Fuck” in the first sentence is that this author’s going to be limited, and will rely heavily on the shock factor. I’ve probably missed out on many good reads because of this literary handicap; but really, who wants to read two hundred pages of that?
This first sentence (from my collection, not P&W’s) taken from The Cowboy and the Cossack, by Clair Huffaker, is written from the perspective of a teenaged cowboy in the 1880’s. It meets the goal of a first sentence—to interest the reader and set the tone—but the weak attempt to capture a nonexistent dialect remains annoyingly unnatural throughout. A forced narrative makes me feel itchy and sick. I read it from front to finish, feeling like I needed to throw up the whole time. Having said that, if you’re looking for a fun read, and don’t mind an amateurish style, you might like it. Here’s its opening:
“It’s the spring of ’80 on the coast of Siberia when our greasy-sack outfit first runs up against those Cossacks.”
Keeping in mind the goal of a first sentence, I examine a few of my attempts and compare them to those declared outstanding by Poets & Writers.
“I own the only building in a two-mile radius that has a basement.” This is from Why Stuff Matters, to be published by Arcadia early next year. Trying to assess it with a fresh eye, I’m not thrilled; but I’m not displeased either. The sentence’s significance is based on a regional awareness—if you’re from northwest Texas, you understand that mention of a basement signals the imminent arrival of a tornado. A reader from elsewhere might not comprehend the implication. Does it make a reader want to read on? I just don’t know! How about this one?
“Before they’d let me out of rehab someone had to agree to act as my legal custodian.” This is from Old Buildings in North Texas, to be released in the UK in September. Once again, ambivalence. It lays out a universal situation—every person on the planet knows an addict. And the phrase “had to agree” portends conflict, hinting that the relationship with this custodian will not go smoothly. But I’m noticing a pattern—my sentences are similar to those I chose as my favorite examples from Poets & Writers. I suppose it’s good that I like my own work.
Here’s the opening sentence of a mystery series, as yet unnamed, that I’m trying to get off the ground:
“During the break several of us slip through the side door and troop to the sidewalk across the street.”
Hardly inspiring. It tells of a person with friends. Slipping through the side door implies some sort of furtive activity. Does it make the reader want to continue?
I’ll finish with what is probably the most famous first sentence ever written, from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Its balance is exquisite, and the assertion that we all believe ourselves to live in extraordinary times creates universality and a sense of continuity that is almost holy. On the other hand, it is so old-fashioned, so overblown, that no modern writer would dare release such a run of words in this instant-gratification world:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Now that’s a first sentence. Does it set the tone and draw the reader in? Or, because it’s obviously going to be a slog, does it cause the reader to close the book and reach for Nora Roberts?