Last Saturday during the memoir class at The Loft Literary Center, the teacher, Angela Foster, talked about the importance of first sentences. I started thinking about how I shop for books. Usually, I’ve read a review, or a friend has recommended one, or I’ve gotten hooked on an author and want to read everything he or she has written. I’m not a browser. Perhaps this is the reason I have a hard time writing first sentences. Browsers know how important they are to entice and intrigue someone into reading more.
We all can’t be Leo Tolstoys, but his Anna Karenina provides an example of what I call a “setting the stage” first sentence: “Happy families are all alike: every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” From this sentence, we know this magnificent story will be about an unhappy family and how it’s unhappy in its own way. If we don’t want to read a 19th century Russian novel about an unhappy family, we won’t buy this book or read it. Of course, there’s a lot of irony in that first sentence too.
Here are some other first sentence examples that I’ve culled from books I loved that were on my shelves:
- She stands up in the garden where she has been working and looks into the distance. The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
- The news hit the British High Commission in Nairobi at nine-thirty on a Monday morning. The Constant Gardener by John le Carre
- Moon. Glorious moon. Full, fat, reddish moon, the night as light as day, the moonlight flooding down across the land and bringing joy, joy, joy. Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay
- It happened every year, was almost a ritual. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
- “Don’t they ever think about anything except killing each other?” Roberto asks. The Exception by Christian Jungersen
- Tom glanced behind him and saw the man coming out of the Green Cage, heading his way. The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
- Anyone who watches even the slightest amount of TV is familiar with the scene: An agent knocks on the door of some seemingly ordinary home or office. Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
What do these first sentences have in common? What do they leave the reader with? A question. Each one also suggests an action or situation, and it creates a tension between the two. In other words, they are dramatic in some way.
Looking at my own writing, I thought first of Perceval’s Secret. I dug out the draft before the last line edit and rewrite. The first sentence was “The dark matter of souls leaked into shadows.” Interesting but there’s no question there, no human drama. Here’s the first sentence after the line edit/rewrite: “In the middle of the room, the old man’s right hook thumped Agent Higgins’ jaw, but Higgins hardly flinched.” This sentence has action, two people in conflict, and questions. Much better.
Next, I turned to my memoir. The first chapter needs a re-shaping and a rewrite. Here’s the current first sentence: “After my mother died in 2002, I cleaned out her massive collection of costume jewelry.” Not terrible, really. Not if my memoir was of my mother, but it’s not. She’s in it, especially the first half, but the focus of the memoir is on me and how I learned to be a patient. I came up with a new first sentence that I showed to Angela Foster. She made a suggestion that I think I’ll keep regarding how to start the sentence. Here it is: “The month before my eleventh birthday, the cough nearly killed me.” Drama, questions, and an illness, so I was a patient. I think I have my first sentence.
A dramatic first sentence grabs the book browser’s interest, intrigues with questions, and creates a desire to read more of the story. Sale! This kind of sentence can be difficult to write, and I usually put off finalizing it until I’ve written the whole book or story. In the future, I’ll also try reading first sentences in books I’ve read and loved to use as inspiration…..