I have this peculiar aversion to writing advice that has become law. But then, I love adjectives and have been known to use the adverb “suddenly” with wanton abandon. Today I’d like to take on this current fad about writing the greatest first line ever penned by humankind.
We’re told over and over how our first sentence must hook the reader. Okay, that’s pretty much a given. But hooking the reader is not enough. No, the first sentence of our story or novel must be so inventive, gripping and compelling that there is no possible way anyone who reads it will not buy the book and write gushing reviews before they even get to the end of the first chapter. This is because we now have exactly 3.5 seconds to capture the attention of an e-reader reading Gen Xer who is also binging on Firefly reruns on their phone, texting, and tweeting all while standing on line at Starbucks while on the way to their high paying job at a mysterious security firm in Dubai.
3.5 seconds. Oh, and this first sentence must also cleverly harbor the seed of the ending, but not in an obvious way. It must convey the tone of the story, set the stage and introduce the voice of the narrator, but not be too wordy or contain any adverbs, adjectives or passive nouns.
This makes my teeth hurt. I want to reject it outright but I was dismayed when a friend of mine who judges for a prestigious contest confirmed this. With hundreds of books to read in a few months; she was on the prowl for this rock star sentence. Nothing less would do. No fireworks—no read. And this is what we hear from many quarters; the overworked agent, the jaded editor; they want fantastic, cutting edge, rock-you-like-a-hurricane opening lines, because damn it, they’re busy. Who in the world had time to waste on two, or even three sentences that might lead to just another story?
I’m going to go out on a limb and pronounce that I am not unique. And I read. When I click on a sample or when I trundle on down to the purveyor of paper books, I almost never stop at just one sentence unless it actually offends me. Maybe I’m not busy enough. But as long as the first line is competently written and mildly engaging, I will keep going. I’d say it takes a couple paragraphs for me to judge whether this is the story for me or not.
As an average reader, what do I look for? I’d say the number one thing is voice. Do I like what I’m hearing? Because, I don’t need to know what’s going on, what the conflict is or who the protagonist is, and I don’t need to be assured that this is a totally unique story that will surprise my socks off and make me laugh, weep and stay up late.
I just want a good story, well told. So I would suggest we all take a deep breath, envision our first scene and listen for the soundtrack. Yup, the rhythm, tone, beat that will tell the reader what kind of story this COULD be, and give them a feel for your voice. Now pardon me for a moment whilst I travel to ye old book shelf where yon paper books are quaintly stored.
I’m back, and I have randomly selected three best-selling, rocked-somebody’s-world books.
Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth.
Do I detect adjectives? Holy cow. And ‘was’? How passive! What was Dashiell Hammet thinking? I think he thought he’d dive right into his character and give us a feel for him. That ‘jutting” tells you Sam is not an easy-listening sort of character. The whole first paragraph is taken up with the description of Spade, including this line, which I love: “He looked pleasantly like a blond Satan”. Pleasantly. Mmmmm. (The Maltese Falcon)
The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it; to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum!
Despite the exclamation point—yawn! I hear inscrutable jazz in the background, discordant and demanding concentration. Who’d think this hot little Czech number took the literary world by storm? To be honest, I’m not sure if I would have continued on if all I got to see was the first sentence; to read or not read? Meh. But luckily I continued on long enough to get to the more interesting bits like “If the French Revolution were to recur eternally, French historians would be less proud of Robespierre.” (The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera)
The accused man, Kabuo Miyamoto, sat proudly upright with a rigid grace, his palms softly on the defendant’s table—the posture of a man who has detached himself insofar as this is possible at his own trial.
Oh, wallow in those lovely adverbs for just a moment! But seriously, this sentence comes closest to that over-achieving first sentence. It does quite a bit, showing us a main character (not the protagonist), his dilemma, a setting which the agile reading mind fills in instantly with generic courtroom visuals, and a bit of his character. Kudos on “rigid grace”. But it’s only as you delve a bit further that you get the bigger picture, the cultural divide, and the poetry of the author’s voice, which is the real hook. (Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson).
Now here’s the part where I back pedal a bit. Trying to pen the best first sentence we can is not bad advice. It is the first impression the reader will get and it’s very important. But I don’t think we as writers should buy into the 3.5 second mentality nor should we paralyze and petrify ourselves with the idea that our first words must be pure genius. I’d suggest we find the rhythmic heart of our story, discover what’s important about the setting, character, or declaration of philosophical disconnect we’ve decided to start with, and key in to how to best present it with a voice that reflects the tone and music of the story.
Then we move on.
Do you have a favorite or most hated first line?