The Critical First Sentence
by James Thayer
The most important words in your novel? The first sentence. Writing it can be easy or hard, depending on who you listen to. The French playwright Molière said, “I always write a good first line, but I have trouble writing the others.” But Chaim Potok said, “All beginnings are hard.”
Your first sentence is the hook for the story that follows.
The easiest thing for a reader to do is to stop reading. A good first sentence propels the reader forward into the rest of the story. How? By creating tension. As the reader sits down in her chair to open the book, and as she turns the novel’s title page and the dedication page, things are in equilibrium. The world is calm and peaceful, and all is in a happy balance. But then she starts to read, and two seconds later, when she reaches the end of the first sentence, something should be out of whack. “Give readers a feeling of motion, of something happening or about to happen,” says James Scott Bell.
First sentences can be subtle, and they can be a smack in the face, but notice the tension and forward motion in all the sentences below. The world becomes unsettled by the end of each of these famous first sentences.
“They threw me off the hay truck about noon.” James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice.
“’Where’s Papa going with that ax?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.” E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web.
“Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.” Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass:
“The scent of smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.” Ian Fleming, Casino Royale.
“People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.” Charles Portis, True Grit.
“The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.” Edgar Allan Poe, The Cask of Amontillado.
“Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.” William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury.
These first sentences are from different genres and different eras. Notice the similarity? They all create tension, and they do so in the very first words of the novel. The literary agent Donald Maass says, “There is, in any great opening line, a mini-conflict or tension that is strong enough to carry the reader to the next step in the narrative.” Something—something usually bad—is about to happen, evident before the novel’s first punctuation. The authors didn’t wait until the end of the first page or the end of the first chapter to put tension in place, but rather did so before the reader could take a breath. These first sentences propel the reader farther into the story.
All successful stories are about change. A new writer often wants to set up the scene before putting the story in motion, to clearly show the state of things before the story’s changes begin. The new writer places everyone in position, describes the characters and the setting, and comments on the weather. And it’s all a mistake. Save this stuff for later. The first sentence should make the reader ask, “What in the world is going to happen next?”
If in the first chapter a hurricane is going to blow down an oak tree which falls through the kitchen roof, there’s no need to first describe the kitchen. If a torpedo is going to strike the destroyer, there’s no need to first describe the sea and the surrounding convoy. If a doctor is going to tell a woman she will be giving birth to triplets, there’s no need to describe the physician’s waiting room or to watch the doctor finish his previous appointment.
Weak opening sentences suffer from inertia. They don’t push the reader forward to the next sentence. There’s no come hither look to them. Here are novels’ first sentences from the masters, followed by an amateurish inert version; that is, how a lesser writer might have begun the same novels:
“Andreas thought he saw the fire down in the bay before anyone else did.” Maeve Binchy, Nights of Rain and Stars:
Inert version: “Andreas sat at the table and opened the newspaper.”
“After dark the rain began to fall again, but he had already made up his mind to go and anyway it had been raining for weeks.” David Wroblewski, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.
Inert version: “After dark the rain began to fall again, as it had been for weeks.”
“His face wet with sweat and with tears, the man runs for freedom, he runs for his life.” Jeffrey Deaver, The Twelfth Card.
Inert version: “The man walks along the sidewalk.”
“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” Stephen King, The Gunslinger, The Dark Tower 1.
Inert version: “The man walked across the sand dune.”
“A killer in waiting, Fred Brinkley slumps in the blue-upholstered banquette on the top deck of the ferry.” James Patterson and Maxine Paetro, The 6th Target.
Inert version: “Fred Brinkley sits in the blue-upholstered banquette on the top deck of the ferry.”
In each of these first sentences by these bestselling authors, the fictional world is unsettled at the end of the sentence. In the inert versions, things are no more unsettled at the end of the sentence than they were at the beginning. The inert versions don’t tempt the reader to go farther into the story because nothing has been knocked off balance.
Watch out for a couple of pitfalls when trying to give tension to your story’s first sentence. When the writer tries too hard, he might end up with an over-the-top sentence, with melodrama instead of drama: “The president of the United States hung from the belly of the helicopter, fiercely gripping the deck, his legs kicking the air, the CIA headquarters at Langley two thousand feet below.” Melodrama means extravagant theatricality, and often it’s hard to know when something is just too much. Here’s a reliable test: ask yourself, is this goofy?
Another pitfall is using something dull in the first sentence. According to The Wall Street Journal, Lisa Scottoline was struggling with the first sentence of a new novel. Her sentence read: “Bennie Rosato shuddered when she caught sight of the prison, as she pulled into the parking lot.” Then Scottoline realized that “no suspense novel should have ‘parking lot’ its first sentence.” The same is true for grocery store, living room, mid-life crisis, empowerment, Ford Taurus, and other stupor-inducing concepts.
And another common mistake is trying to pack too much writerly writing into the first sentence. Keep it simple. Larry McMurtry says about a first sentence, “Think of it as analogous to a good country breakfast; what we want is something simple, but nourishing to the imagination. Hold the philosophy, hold the adjectives, just give us a plain subject and verb and perhaps a wholesome, nonfattening adverb or two.”
If your story’s first sentence will make the reader ask, “What’s next?” you’ve got a winner. If it will make the reader ask, “So what?” try again.
James Thayer’s thirteenth novel, The Boxer and the Poet; Something of a Romance, was published by Black Lyon Publishing in March 2008. He teaches novel writing at the University of Washington Extension School, and he runs a freelance editing service (www.thayerediting.com).