THE FIRST SENTENCE
May 9, 2016
Let’s Get It Started
Beginnings are hard. So are middles and endings and all the places in between. This first post on structure starts at the very beginning. You type CHAPTER ONE, you hit Enter twice, and then, oh dear God, it’s time to write a story. Worse yet, it’s time to write THE FIRST SENTENCE.
Here are the first sentences of all five of the books I’ve written (and published) to date:
1. “I stare out the passenger side window at the pretty mountain scenery bumping by, smiling at the realization that nothing has changed since I was last here.” (Just Once)
2. “Next up for auction is the honour of naming the naked mole rat recently born at the zoo…” (Time Served)
3. “Olivia had spent enough time in the company of casually dangerous men to know one when he walked in.” (Going the Distance)
4. “Whoever said it was lonely at the top was wrong.” (In Her Defense)
5. “To be fair, it’s really not my fault this time.” (Undecided)
In my opinion, the more I write, the better I get. The more I write, the more I know what my stories are about. Sentences one and two don’t really encompass the theme of the story. Sentence three comes closer; sentences four and five, closer still. In Her Defense is about a ruthless young lawyer who will do anything to be the best and has no qualms about the things she might be missing out on as she climbs the corporate ladder. By the end of the story, she realizes she is, in fact, lonely, and wants a life that includes more than just professional success.
Undecided is about a girl who messed up a lot in her first year of college and is determined to start her second year on better footing. Her first step is to find a studious new roommate, and instead she moves in with the campus heartthrob. Throughout the story she’s trying not to make mistakes, when the real story is not about how to be perfect, but the understanding and acceptance of the inevitability that everybody makes mistakes, it’s how we learn from them that shapes us.
Knowing what your story is actually about will help you write a great first sentence. Tweet that!
When people finish your book and go back and re-read that first line, will they have a different understanding of it? Will the light finally turn on and your heretofore hidden genius be revealed? As with most things, writing a great first sentence is easier said than done. Don’t write your first sentence simply to put words on the page. (Or rather, go ahead and do that, but consider it a major part of your rewrite when you finally get that first draft completed.) Keep it in the back of your mind as you’re writing, as you’re developing your story, and as your understanding of your plots and themes grows. The more you know, the better you’ll be, whether or not those epiphanies wind up on the page. When better to start sharing all your best work than the first sentence?
In his excellent interview with The Atlantic, Stephen King talks about many things writing-related, and had this to say about first sentences “…there's one thing I'm sure about. An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”
Does your first sentence get the reader’s attention? Do mine? If you’re looking at your first line and thinking it’s meh, why should the reader feel any differently? I’m absolutely guilty of doing this myself. Thinking, “Yeah, this line/paragraph/chapter’s a little boring, but it gets exciting on page 80!” You’ve got to get people to page 80 for that to matter, which means raising your standards of what’s good enough and striving to reach them at every turn, every page, every line. Even the first one.
Famous First Lines
“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)
“All children, except one, grow up.” (J.M. Barry, Peter Pan)
“Don’t look for dignity in public bathrooms.” (Victor LaValle, Big Machine)
“I’m pretty much fucked.” (Andy Weir, The Martian)
What do these lines have in common? Beyond being smart and original and interesting and a bunch of other wonderful things? They say something. These writers know what their story is about. Even if we don’t know yet, there’s the sense that the writer does, that they’ve done some work, that they’ve thought about it. And that, for me, matters. It reassures me and allows me to trust the author and turn the page and believe in what I’m reading. It makes me confident, as a reader and a writer. It makes me want more. That’s what your first sentence should do.
Thanks for reading this far! Next up: The Inciting Incident.
Questions? Comments? I’m still on the fence about adding a comments section to these pages because a) I’d have to figure out how to do that, and b) I’m not sure I have the time to moderate it. But I do monitor my social media accounts with astounding unpredictability, so feel free to message me on Facebook or tweet me or email me, and I’ll do my best to respond and, if necessary, update my post accordingly.