Thursday, December 13, 2012

First sentences

Writers are told many things about first sentences these days, the implication generally being that the first sentence of your novel is the thing that will win or lose a reader (though of course in most of the conversations had with writers, the first sentence is presumed to be the thing that will win or lose an agent or editor, not a reader*).

So, to a writer, the first sentence of a novel is the Big Moment, the Valuable First Impression, the Opening Gambit upon which the fate of the whole game rests, etc. Bollocks, you know, all of it. I have sat here thinking very hard and I've only managed to come up with a half dozen first sentences of novels I've read, and most of those I only remember because I make a point to avoid writing first sentences modeled on them. "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times" is a stupid way to start a novel, you know. "Every happy family is the same, etc" is a statement of theme that Tolstoy should've buried in the end of the second act of that novel, not hit the reader with on the first page. Leo had a bad habit of tipping his hand sometimes.

What I think matters, really, is an arresting image, not a finely-tuned bit of grandiloquence. The opening of Our Mutual Friend is kinetic and mysterious and I vividly recall the scene on the river, though I cannot tell you what the first sentence of the book was. I have no idea. Nobody can tell me what the opening paragraphs of Tale of Two Cities are supposed to mean, because that's just Dickens clearing his throat and playing with pairs of opposites until he wears out his welcome. Which he does.

I can tell you how The Hobbit opens, because that's my sort of first sentence. It gets the job done of starting off the book, and it takes the tone that the author will continue to use for the whole narrative. Nothing fancy from old John, just a bit of exposition: In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Note the lack of immediate conflict, note the lack of action, note the lack of a clear protagonist. "In a hole in the ground there lived a rabbit?" Tolkein then goes on to talk about the hole, not the hobbit.

My own first sentences are prosaic enough:

It snowed again today, the third time this week.

Gustavus had lost a lot of blood.

They'd arrived on the island, as had most of the other guests, only the day before.

"They will hang me tomorrow," the prisoner said.

It was Thursday, and it was David and Violet Molloy's fifteenth wedding anniversary.

I am sick of Hamlet (I wrote to a friend, another novelist).

None of these sentences is the novel-in-miniature, none of them introduces the protagonist nor the primary story question. None of them is fancy nor do any of them attempt to grab the reader by the throat and refuse to let him go. What they do, I hope, is take the first step toward a vivid image that will draw the reader into the narrative. Very little of that image is visible from these bare little sentences.

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.

Both of those sentences are full of meaning beyond themselves, but that meaning only becomes clear as the novels progress. They are keys to the narrative doors, but they are not the views behind the doors. I don't know where I'm going with all of this. Possibly to suggest--and this is by no means my own idea--that a novelist should simply cut the first paragraph of his latest novel before letting anyone read it, letting the narrative begin at the start of the second paragraph. Chekhov, in his wisdom, suggested doing that very thing (he also suggested cutting the last paragraph as well, and I think that was fine advice).

I remember now: I was thinking about how I've done this very thing with the first paragraph, cutting it and starting the novel a paragraph later. I did this with my upcoming novel The Astrologer when I realized that the paragraph (actually, it was two paragraphs) over which I'd labored long and hard and headachingly was completely unnecessary and most of it was exposition that I repeated a few pages later on, where it really belonged. There was some good stuff in that first paragraph, too: My breath came in clouds of white, as if my own ghost had realized how cold I was and, mistaking me for dead, was taking leave of my body. That's a nice bit of prose. Cut, cut, cut.

*because, yes, agents and editors aren't real readers. They don't read books the way actual people do. I suspect they aren't real people.


  1. You should see Dickens's and Tolstoy's original first paragraphs, the ones they cut following Chekhov's advice.

  2. Yeah, I know: Two Cities had all that stuff about cats kittling under the writing desk. That was just weird. But the long introductory passage in the Tolstoy, about the valet walking up the back stairs of the house to the second floor, lost in thought and worried about the smudge on his right glove? That was good stuff and I don't know why Tolstoy didn't work that back into the book later on.

    I don't even know why I wrote this post. There was a moment when it felt as though I had something to say, some actual thought I wanted to express. In retrospect, I should've just gone for a cup of coffee. I find it increasingly difficult to say anything at all about fiction, my own or anyone's.

  3. Most useful first sentence: "An Irishman walks into a bar."

  4. I read an interview with some agent somewhere who was saying that a writer has to grab the attention of an agent in the first five sentences or he's lost it, possibly for good.

    That's just so stupid.

    I remember the first sentence from Marguerite Duras' The Lover, I think.

    "Very early in my life, it was too late."

    Her novel is not the kind of thing that interests me much, anymore, but for some reason I remember that sentence. *shrugs*

    Why don't people talk about last sentences? I hear the last sentence from The Great Gatsby quoted quite often. I may spend the rest of my day trying to think of memorable last sentences. :)

  5. Agents are salesmen, not literary theorists; nor are they writers, nor are they generally good readers. They claim to be gatekeepers of the world of letters, bravely sorting the 5% of decent writing from the slush pile. As if it takes a certain genius to recognize that 95% of manuscripts are not very good. Like my first agent used to say, "Agents are sheep."

    "Jewel and I come up from the field, following the path in single file." --Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

  6. When I think about first sentences the three that come to mind, the only three, are "Call me Ishmael." (which I'm calling a first sentence for this comment) and the first sentence of Mrs. Dalloway, and Tolstoy's "Every happy family..." line.

    I remember these because (1) they show range, (2) they capture a tone and present a taste of what the book will be and what the "rules" or "universe" of the book are, and (3) they don't really do a ton more. It reduces my stress.

    Tolstoy's first line, I'd argue, prepares the reader for the universe Tolstoy is about to present. This is better than starting from any one character's point of view for this particular book, in my opinion. Be nice to Tolstoy. Because he's the best.

    Some of my first lines (regardless of whether I like them or not!)

    The boys do not notice their mother approaching.

    Dean MacLaren diagnosed his heart attack at nine in the morning.

    I begin this memoir early.

    Nina Allison stood in the doorway with her arms crossed while she watched her husband sleep.

    From the day her first daughter was born until the day after her second daughter turned two years old, Satsuki Tanaka was considered the luckiest mother in southern Kochi.

    I don't actually love any of these first sentences, which I guess also shows that I don't invest too much in them or put too much pressure on myself to come up with a good one. I give myself a paragraph to a page to engage a reader.

  7. A paragraph to a page is a good measure, I think.

    Tolstoy was good, but sometimes he goes too far. The first sentence of Karenina goes too far, as does the final sentence of Hadji Murad. The first full paragraph of Karenina, about the family in upset, is so much better than Tolstoy's statement of theme.

    "Call me Ishmael" is good. I was thinking about that one earlier today. It's very practical, much like "An Irishman walks into a bar," which I continue to hold up as the ultimate first sentence. My next book will begin with that sentence.

  8. I could not resist this post.

    Here is the first line of my latest Regency romance. Tell me if you like it.

    Gregory Francis Scott, Sixth Earl of Bailey, snapped the book closed he had been reading and tossed it onto the table where it landed with a small thud.

    Not much there, but it works for me. How about you?

    Made it past the halfway point and just can't wait to finish it so I can send it to you (in paperback form of course.) I think you'll find the protagonist very much like someone we both know. (Hint - it isn't Davin. Or Michelle.)

  9. Anne, how have you been!

    I would simplify the sentence a bit: "...Bailey, snapped shut his book and threw it onto the table." It seems clear he'd been reading, and I hate the word "thud" for reasons even I don't understand. Your mileage may vary. There's nothing wrong with your version, though. I like the character name; it reminds me of something, but I can't quite place it.

  10. In line with cutting your first paragraph rule of thumb, I'm sure there's been additional focus on the opening pages (by agents and editors) related to online and e-reader samples. Hook 'em or lose 'em.

    Shoot, I'm 350 pages in on a novel and I'm still not sure what it's about. And loving it.

  11. I agree with you, but a fantastic first line doesn't hurt, either.

  12. Dwight, yes about first pages. Don't get me started.

    Richard, a fantastic first line is a good thing, but not a necessity by any means. Too many fantastic first lines don't fit with the remaining prose; they're hammered onto the start of the book, a shiny bauble to catch your eye. That's not writing. That's just advertising.

  13. Sideways comment:

    William Harmon ends his collection of many poems, "One Long Poem," with a poem about "how things end / That have the grace to end" (not sure I remember that right.) And then goes on to cite the final words of "Lord Jim" and "Jane Eyre." And so ending a collection of poems and not (and yet) "One Long Poem" with novels.