5 Spot-On First Sentences and Why They Work
Someone I’m not going to name tells really bad stories. He knows who he is, knows I’m writing about him, and has promised this blog will not affect our marriage. When this person tells a story, from the word go, I’m making that yeah-yeah-c’mon gesture. One day—hand numb, brain dead—I blurted, “Enough with the details, get to the story.” And this person said, “But without these details, I don’t have a story.” Ahem. Bingo!
This person really wanted to finish, so I sat on my hand and listened. And guess what? He did have a story, despite the loooooooong buildup. And it was pretty funny. We just had to get to it. But other people won’t have my patience (that’s what I’m choosing to call it). Those with inboxes that are lousy with submissions aren’t going to take the time to find the point of your novel or story. They’re going to toss yours and move on to the next one.
Stop them! Grab them by the throat with the first sentence. Make it powerful, strong, meaningful, dramatic, unique. Try unusual language, a distinct voice, a startling action, intriguing dialogue, a mood, a puzzle, or an active description. Just make them want to read more.
Take a tip from the authors who wrote these famous first sentences.
1. Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu. —Ha Jin, Waiting (1999)
Right off, the author creates an unusual situation, an interesting character, and a puzzle. We want to keep reading to find out why Lin Kong divorces his wife every year. Is he not all there? Does he have to file papers, and there’s a one-year period before those papers expire? Lin files every year, and every year Shuyu refuses to sign? Why? Does she still love him? The questions go on, and we want answers—all from one, simple, haunting sentence.
2. The Miss Lonelyhearts of the New York Post-Dispatch (Are you in trouble?—Do-you-need-advice?—Write-to-Miss-Lonelyhearts-and-she-will-help-you) sat at his desk and stared at a piece of white cardboard. —Nathanael West, Miss Lonelyhearts (1933)
This maze of a sentence (the syntax, the parenthesis within em dashes) is anything but simple. The structure itself is a puzzle. The gender swapping (the switch from Miss to Mr.) surprises. And the sentence raises questions. Why isn’t Miss Lonelyhearts, adviser to the lovelorn, helping anyone? Why does he stare at white cardboard instead of pounding wisdom into his keyboard? Is he hashing over some particularly tough problem? Or does he not give a rip about his job? Is he himself lovelorn?
3. They shoot the white girl first. —Toni Morrison, Paradise (1998)
This line is simple, stripped of emotion, and extremely painful. All kinds of scenes and scenarios fill our heads. Plus we want to know what’s going on. Why are they killing anyone? Why girls? Why white girls first? Who’s doing the killing and how? Who’s next? Where’s she sitting? Is she hovering against the courtyard wall? Against the wall of a cell? This sentence is a highway pileup. It’s horrible, but you have to look. You have to keep reading.
4. I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. —Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle (1948)
This opening line can be either absurd or tragic. The very ambiguity pulls us in. Why is she writing from the sink? Did she just go off, strip down, sit on the porcelain, and start journaling? Is this a regular thing with her? Or changing the note of the story completely, and given the year, is she sad, imprisoned by housework, and feels most herself in the sink? What is she writing? A plea for help?
5. 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. —The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
Intrigue and attitude. This guy comes off like a jerk. He doesn’t want to write the book, or at least he doesn’t want to write what he thinks people want to read. We get the impression that he doesn’t care whether anyone reads the book or not. So why is he writing and asking us to invest our time? Or maybe he’s trying to say (with a really bad attitude) that he’s going to write about something that goes beyond the usual initial exchange of information. We want to read on because he’s discouraging us from doing so. It’s the old story of wanting what we can’t have.
Here are a few more of my favorite first sentences. Although the level of intrigue varies in intensity, the following sentences evoke the same level of curiosity.
- I am an invisible man. —Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)
- All this happened, more or less. —Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
- Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. —Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (1925)
- It was a pleasure to burn.—Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
- In a sense, I am Jacob Horner. —John Barth, The End of the Road (1958)
Every one of these sentences is extremely specific yet leaves huge holes we want filled. That’s how the writers hook us. That’s how you hook your readers.
For more first lines—good and bad, check out The Fifty Best First Lines in Fiction.
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