James Van Pelt

Writing Words Fantastical and Otherwise

Sunday Writing: Practice and Theory of First Sentences

beginningIn May I wrote about story beginnings, but that’s a bigger topic than what I wanted to focus on today: the first sentence.

I’ve been working on a unified field theory for fiction, which is an impossible task. In every way the impossibility is clear when I take on the theory and practice of first sentences. A first sentence has so many possibilities! It’s supposed to hook the reader, of course (or at least not drive the reader away), but it also can introduce one or more of the following: conflict, character, setting, background, or action. It can start the story in the middle, in media res, or it can start at the end, the beginning, or way before the beginning. In a flashback story, the first sentence could start way after the end.

For me, the first sentence has to do three things: hook the reader, set the tone, and set up the end. Here’s one of my own favorite first sentences.  It’s from “Shark Attack: a Love Story”

“Willard was day dreaming about Elsa when the shark caught Benford, the new mail boy, directly in front of Willard’s desk.”
I liked this one because I got the two most important elements in the story within it: Willard’s attraction to Elsa, and the problem with the sharks. It seems like a good hook to me, it went a long way toward establishing the story’s tone, and it connected to the end, since the resolution of the story deals with both the sharks and Elsa.

But the problem with beginning sentences is that there’s an infinite number of ways to start!  Consider a story like a chess game.  In chess there are 20 possible opening moves, each one affecting how the game may go.  In a story, though, there are as many opening moves as there are words in the dictionary (isn’t it sad, then, how many stories start with “the”).

So, since there are so many ways to start, and any one of them could be the first sentence to a successful story, what should be considered when evaluating the sentence?

When I’m teaching story writing, I’ll often have the students put their draft’s first sentence on the board.  I’ll have them do two things: they have to identify what approach the sentence took (conflict, character, setting, background, or action), and then decide which sentence made them want to read more the most.  All the exercise really does is make them aware that their first sentence is a choice.  I’m constantly amazed by inexperienced writers’ inabilty to see the malleability of their own writing.  It’s like they are trapped by their styles!

I end up giving students three pieces of advice about first sentences (and that’s all I’ve got for them–there’s too much involved for me to go beyond these suggestions):

  • Remember that you can change your first sentence.
  • Make sure that the beginning sentence sets up the end of the story in some way.
  • Don’t worry about the first sentence when you are writing the rough draft.  Way too much agony can be generated while staring at a blank page, waiting for the perfect first sentence.

Here’s some first sentences I liked from literature.  I’m not sure, though, if these are great sentences on their own, or they’re great because they are the first puzzle piece in the intricate construction of a story I really like.  I have this same problem when I discuss the practice and theory of story titles.  Is the title great on its own, or is it great because the story that followed it made it great?

  • “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”  Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
  • “During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.”  Edgar Allan Poe, “Fall of the House of Usher”
  • “There were fireworks the first night, things that you should be afraid of perhaps, for they might remind you of other more horrible things, but these were beautiful, rockets that ascended into the ancient soft air of Mexico and shook the stars apart in blue and white fragments.”  Ray Bradbury, “The Fox and the Forest”
  • “After the guy was dead and the smell of his burning flesh was off the air, we all went back down to the beach.”  Stephen King, “Night Surf.”
  • “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”  George Orwell, 1984

I see that three of these sentences begin with a pronoun and a linking verb, a style I discourage in class, and, yet, there they are, in my list of good opening sentences.  I guess that confirms another truism of mine, there are no unbreakable rules (if it works).

Maybe the problem with first sentences is that we put WAY too much emphasis on them.  They are too small of a piece of the puzzle that is the story to make or break it.  Maybe a better entry for today would have been about first paragraphs or first pages, but, well, I wrote this instead *g*.

Resources for first sentences:

The Write Club: First Sentences
100 Best First Lines from Novels

Thoughts on first sentences?  How do you know you’ve written a good one?  Does your first draft first sentence make it to the final draft?  How do you evaluate your opening sentence?

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1 Comment

  1. Craig O. Jones

    The best first sentences hook me into the character and place me in the world. A lot of it is word choice, a signalling of what lies ahead. I think of first sentences like good story, on paper or film where something small and nearly unnoticed becomes crucial later on. For instance “The butter knife lay beside the plate with the burnt steak little Esla had brought from the kitchen, before she ran for her seat across from me.” That butter knife doesn’t seem too important at first but when it comes back pages later in some terrible way, it ties the beginning and end together and gives the reader a reason to pay attention. To want to find the significance of such a simple item. Back to the future started with clocks ticking. And that is what is happening through the whole story. Time is passing away in a measured and intriguing way. You also see the skateboard. The food bring dispensed for Einstein in a way that tells you who Doc Brown is. Even before you know there is a Doc Brown. All of it becomes important. That is how really good stories do it. How good writers pull you in.
    I like this one from Ray Bradbury, “One minute it was Ohio winter, with doors closed, windows locked, the panes blind with a frost, icicles fringing every roof, children skiing on slopes, housewives lumbering like great black bears in thier furs along the icy streets.” – Martian Chronicles. That is Earth but preludes the feelings Mars conjures.
    From Stephen King’s “It.” ” The terror that would not end for another 28 years, if it ever did, began as far as I can know or tell with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.” That one hooked me hard. I can see it. I have been there somehow. I can feel the rain.

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