A Year in First Sentences

The old saying about there only being one chance to make a good first impression may not be true for novelists. I may stand to be proven wrong in the future, but I believe we have two. The first, obviously, is the cover. Like it or not, the cover art (along with the blurb) is the first — and perhaps only — thing the reader will see. The second, should we be so lucky to attract a cracking of the spine, is the opening sentence. Years ago, when first beginning to test the waters of story telling, I purchased a number of how-to books, some of them gimmicky, some of them helpful. Hooked by Les Edgerton dealt exclusively with the sculpting of openings. If it helped me with anything, it was understanding the importance of that opening line. The first sentence can be used in myriad ways to convey information to the reader, whether through dialogue, monologue, setting, background, or action. Better still, a good first sentence makes the reader ask questions about the who, what, where, when, why, and how of your story. Either way, the one thing it must absolutely do is grab the reader’s attention and command them to keep reading.

Sounds legit.

So I’ve decided, as part of my ongoing quest to further educate myself — and to meet all local and international blog requirements stipulating a minimum of one post of the year-in-review variety per annum — that I would analyze the opening line from each of the books I read during the prior year, reference and how-to books aside. This post, originally written last fall, covers the works of fiction that I read in 2014. Next week’s post takes a look at the dozen or so non-fiction books I read that year. I read about 50% more books in 2015 and will be tackling the first sentences from that stack in later posts, probably in March.

As always, please let me know in the comments your thoughts on these or any other first sentences. Similarly, be sure to let me know, based on this very public exposure of my reading predilections, if you have any questions or book recommendations. Eagle-eyed readers who also followed my bicycle journey over at Two Far Gone will no doubt be able to reconstruct the chronology in which I read these books. Or you might just cheat and look at my Goodreads profile. But no peaking at my 2015 and 2016 shelves; the corresponding blog posts will be coming soon enough!

Fiction, 2014

I spent the majority of 2014 bicycling from Seattle across North America to Maine and southward from Scotland to Morocco, before spending Italy in Tuscany and Rome. My fiction reading during this time tended towards the classics of my then-current locale and two pieces of brilliant war fiction. I only realized later, when assembling this post, that only one of the authors featured below is still alive. My 2015 list includes far more contemporary works, rest assured.

1) A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle (1887)

In the year 1878 I took my degree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London, and proceeded to Netley to go through the course prescribed for surgeons in the army.

The above sentence, the first of Chapter 1, follows this parenthetical introducing Part 1:

(Being a reprint from the reminiscences of JOHN H. WATSON, M.D., late of the Army Medical Department.)

One of the big joys for me in 2014 was reading through the entirety of the Sherlock Holmes Collection, all thousand-plus pages of novels and short stories. This opening line, and its companion line preceding Chapter 1, from A Study in Scarlet, does a wonderful job of not only conveying information about the narrator — John Watson is a 19th century doctor from London who served as an army surgeon… and is now dead — but also masterfully sets the tone of the stories to come. I am of the unoriginal belief that Watson and Holmes are two of the finest, most fully-realized characters ever created for the page and this opening sentence, taken from the first Sherlock Holmes story (and my favorite, though I am a sucker for origin stories), certainly hooked me from the start.

2) The Sign of the Four by Arthur Conan Doyle (1890)

Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantelpiece and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case.

What? Why? I don’t like the sounds of this! The mind immediately starts shouting questions, demanding answers from our narrator, Watson. Is Holmes sick? Is Holmes turning to drugs? What’s a morocco case? Okay, that’s probably my own 21st century ignorance asking that last one. Nevertheless, in just one sentence, after a three-year hiatus between novels mind you, Doyle jolted his audience from their slumber and had them squirming along the edge of their seats.

3) The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle (1901)

Mr. Sherlock Holmes, who was usually very late in the mornings, save upon those not infrequent occasions where he was up all night, was seated at the breakfast table.

Faithful readers had two novels and more than twenty short stories worth of Holmes’ detective work to digest by the time The Hound of the Baskervilles was released. Doyle began his longest and ultimately most famous Holmes adventure with this rather simple setup: Holmes joining Watson for breakfast. Long-time readers, and perhaps new ones too, can tell immediately from Watson’s language that Holmes either has a very early appointment or was up all night with a restless mind. Either way, the case Watson is about to write about was sure to be of a most distinct nature, as only the most spectacular cases were of interest to Holmes at this stage in his career.

4) The Valley of Fear by Arthur Conan Doyle (1914)

“I am inclined to think — ” said I.
“I should do so,” Sherlock Holmes remarked impatiently.

You can feel the condescension oozing off the page with this brief exchange that opens the final Sherlock Holmes novel. The relationship between Watson and Holmes was a decades-long subplot that, to me, was often as interesting as the sleuthing. This exchange, totaling less than ten words of dialogue, encapsulates their friendship perfectly. It’s an exchange that not only alerts the new reader that this Sherlock Holmes character has a massive superiority complex, but it also tells long-time readers that, despite the intervening years, Holmes still hasn’t changed… and he’s in a really pissy mood.

5) Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

What’s to be said? This is one of the finest, most memorable, attention-grabbing opening lines in literary history. It’s timeless commentary that makes us chuckle and even today makes us think of the social implications of this so-called universal truth. Must wealthy men want a wife? I don’t know, do they? One thing for sure, we know that this is going to be a love story with a touch of humor, most likely at the expense of high society. We can surmise that there is going to be a female protagonist, who is available, and a male counterpart who may or not be wealthy and looking.

6) For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway (1939)

He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees.

We know from the blurb and perhaps also from the title and what we know about Hemingway’s life, that we’re about to read a novel of war fiction, the Spanish Civil War to be exact. So we don’t need to be told that that the he is a soldier, not a daydreaming schoolboy somewhere safe. The sentence is pure description, stated in the simple economical style that Hemingway’s prose was known for, and it immediately makes us feel unease as we wonder if the man is in danger. War fiction, perhaps more than any other genre, has a way of invoking tension in even the most benign setups.

7) Her Privates We by Frederick Manning (1916)

The darkness was increasing rapidly, as the whole sky had clouded, and threatened thunder. There was still some desultory shelling.

I included the second sentence as a favor to the late author who, albeit poetically, essentially began his story with the rightfully-mocked cliche “It was a dark and stormy night.” This, in retrospect, seems incongruously amateur given the Shakespearean quotes that preface each part and chapter’s narrative. But that is just criticism in a vacuum. When paired with the sentence that follows, the opening creates such a tangible sense of foreboding that the reader can’t help but feel the tension of the battlefield and brace themselves for the tales of human suffering that are bound to follow. And besides, are stories not allowed to begin on a stormy night? Of course they are. The key is to phrase it in a way that obscures the cliche. Just like Manning did here.

8) The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles (1949)

He awoke, opened his eyes.

I considered including the second sentence as well, but it takes the entirety of the four flowery sentences that follow — though none as superficially redundant as the first — to complete an initial image for the reader. That being one of an existential crisis slowly unfolding. Similarly, it takes the bulk of those same five sentences to relay any concrete information or demand any questions other than a slight wonder about who opened their eyes. I enjoyed this book enough and it made a fine traveling companion as we cycled our way across Morocco to the edge of the Sahara Desert (the book was set in neighboring Algeria), but there is no question that this first sentence, especially in the context of this exercise, is by the far the weakest of the lot.

9) Big Medicine: A Western Quartet by Louis L’Amour (1948)

Old Billy Dunbar was down flat on his face in a dry wash swearing into his beard.

Louis L’Amour books are like a favorite sweater, a grilled cheese sandwich, or a mug of hot cocoa on a winter’s day. They are the comfort food to my imagination. Normally, the cynical me would laugh at a cheesy character name like Old Billy Dunbar, but it’s a western so it slides. Genre matters so much in terms of what we can get away with as writers, and what we, as readers, let slide without jest. Names aside, L’Amour does a great job of letting us know right away that Old Billy Dunbar is not having the best of days. Is he hurt? Is he in hiding? Did his mule just throw him? Keep reading to find out, I sure did! Note: Big Medicine is the title novella in this collection of four.

10) Raising John by Jennifer Lesher (2013)

John didn’t remember his mommy, but his Grammy had a lot of pictures of her.

This is a great example of the opening line reinforcing the title in a way that defies expectation. We automatically assume a child is raised by his mother and here the author throws us a curveball in the very first sentence. Nope, this poor kid is being raised by Grammy. So we immediately begin to ask questions about his mother. Is she dead? Did she abandon him? And what about the father? He’s not even mentioned. Why? Jennifer — I’ll call her Jennifer since that’s what I call her when we go mountain biking together — executed a really effective first sentence in her debut novel. I hope to be so skilled.

11) The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1851)

Half-way down a by-street of one of our New England towns, stands a rusty wooden house, with seven acutely-peaked gables, facing towards various points of the compass, and a huge, clustered chimney in the midst.

I’m willing to bet there aren’t too many editors out there today who would allow a first sentence consisting entirely of static description. Yet it works. And not just because of the unusual and mildly ominous description, but because the mansion is the star of the book. It’s right there in the title. The book starts in medias res, but Hawthorne chose to set the scene before getting to the body, as opposed to the rules of today which stipulate action, action, action. As an aside, this was one of my favorite books from that year’s reading. For anyone who remembers struggling through A Scarlet Letter in high school and swearing off Hawthorne for life, do yourself a favor and pick this one up. It’s romantic, it’s macabre, and it stands up exceedingly well to the test of time. Speaking of time…

12) The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (1895)

The Time Traveler (for so it will be convenient to speak of him) was expounding a recondite matter to us.

Kindly back away from the thesaurus, sir. Recondite, for those who don’t know, means something of a subject or knowledge that is little known or obscure. To use it in a sentence: H.G. Wells begins his fanciful novel The Time Machine with a recondite vocabulary selection. In addition to the word choice, Wells makes two other bold strokes in this opening sentence: naming his protagonist “The Time Traveler” and including a parenthetical to essentially explain the use of that name. I love it. Perhaps it’s the late 19th century time frame he was writing in, or his common heritage, but I sense a strong connection with Doyle’s character John Watson in the tone of this narration. And that’s never a bad thing.

13) On the Road by Jack Kerouac (1957)

I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up.

Who’s Dean? Why’d you and you and your wife split up? How long ago was it, anyway? We immediately keep reading. After all, the author is obviously willing to take us in his confidence. On the Road is one of the great American travel memoirs/novels (I debated including this in my list of non-fiction books) and though we may wonder what, in addition to the names of the characters (Dean was actually Jack’s friend Neal Cassady), was also changed to protect the guilty, we take the author by his word and discard any concerns for truthfulness and settle in for a frenetic tale. Fans of Kerouac should stop by the Beat Generation Museum if ever in San Francisco. It’s a neat little museum and bookstore curated by fans of the era and even has the car used in the movie adaptation of On the Road, dust from Route 66 and all.

Bonus Anecdote: Shawn Coyne (of Story Grid fame) recently shared the following anecdote about the power of first sentences. This is the first sentence to The Key to Rebecca by Ken Follet: “The last camel collapsed at noon.” Great line, right? I think so. And so did best-selling crime writer Elizabeth Peters who later titled one of her novels “The Last Camel Died at Noon.” Talk about paying a professional compliment!

Post Image by David Jones, used under Creative Commons.

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4 thoughts on “A Year in First Sentences”

  1. Thanks for the mention, and the kind words about my first sentence. Now the pressure’s on for the second book! And, I think our new bikes should get out for a ride sometime when the weather improves.

  2. I tested myself by reading the First Sentence from each of the 13 books you listed. There were a few that had an obvious interpretation, but you had me at a great disadvantage! I never read any of these books nor was I familiar with the authors. I loved your comments, explanations, questions, and opinions about each of the opening lines. I trust your guidance and will eagerly read all your Posts as I did with “Two Far Gone”. Now I’m off to see “The Martian!

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