Starting A Novel With A Great First Sentence, by Ben Marshall
It’s often said that the first sentence is crucial to get readers (and potential agents and publishers) hooked. I’m sure a good first sentence helps, but what follows is what really counts. That said, a lot of picture can be painted with just a few brushstrokes.
“The seller of lightning rods arrived just ahead of the storm.”
Ray Bradbury’s classic, Something Wicked This Way Comes, starts with some Bradbury genius – tension, era and intrigue painted in one stroke.
“There are plenty would call her a slut for it.”
Margo Lanagan’s start to Tender Morsels hints at her narrator’s education and background, at the theme of sex, and raises intrigue about what ‘it’ might be.
“I was sitting outside the Commodore’s mansion, waiting for my brother Charlie to come out with news of the job.”
Patrick De Witt makes an unassuming start to The Sister’s Brothers with a sentence that sets up the brothers’ relationship and gives a mild sense of intrigue.
“The Austrian horses glinted in the moonlight, their riders standing tall in the saddle, swords raised.”
That’s by Scott Westerfeld from the first in his Leviathan series. A few brief brushstrokes to give you a sense of place, theme and tension. He promises war, and that’s what you get.
“Quentin did a magic trick. Nobody noticed.”
With those sentences, Lev Grossman begins his novel, The Magicians, with hooks that establish character and the self-deprecating tension of the first-person narration.
“I had just come to accept that my life would be ordinary when extraordinary things began to happen.”
Ransom Riggs begins his tale, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, with this first line. It hints at intrigue, but it’s exposition rather than action, especially as he doesn’t follow immediately it up with an example of an ‘extraordinary thing’.
“I belong to Mister Splinter’s circus. I do the murders.”
That’s the first line from my unpublished novel, The Pricking of Thumbs. I wanted to establish a lot, quickly – generating intrigue, and hinting at the darkness of the novel.
“Conor was awake when it came.
Patrick Ness: A Monster Calls. Simplicity and clarity begin this emotional tale. Trying to squeeze too much into a single first sentence without equally effective follow-up is, obviously, pointless. Each successive sentence must build on the first.
“The smuggler held the bullet between thumb and forefinger, studying it in the weak light of the storeroom. He smiled sourly. ‘Just imagine,’ he said. ‘Imagine what this feels like, going through your head.’”
Chris Wooding’s start to the first in his Ketty Jay series, Retribution Falls, drops you into a life-and-death situation, and establishes style and story.
“Jasper Jones has come to my window. I don’t know why, but he has. Maybe he’s in trouble. Maybe he doesn’t have anywhere else to go. Either way, he’s just frightened the living shit out of me.”
Craig Silvey’s novel, Jasper Jones, hints at the ambiguous relationship between the narrator and the subject, is reasonably active and creates intrigue. It raises more questions than it establishes character or place, but it’s no bad thing for a beginning to make the reader want to know what’s going to happen next.
So far, so Young Adult, which has been my primary focus recently. Turning to other areas…
“All it took was a single glass of orange juice laced with hydrochloric acid.”
Graham Farmelo’s biography of Paul Dirac, The Strangest Man, let’s us know we’re about to embark on a train crash.
“The taxi’s radio was tuned to a classical FM broadcast.”
A low tech start from the deceptively simple, beguiling prose of Haruki Murakami’s IQ84 works to ground the reader in the known world before everything gets surreal.
“He was tall, about fifty, with darkly handsome, almost sinister features; a neatly trimmed moustache, hair turning silver at the temples, and eyes so black they were like the tinted windows of a sleek limousine; he could see out but you couldn’t see in.”
Joe Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
“At a certain village in La Mancha, which I shall not name, there lived not long ago one of those old-fashioned gentlemen who are never without a lance upon a rack, an old target, a lean horse, and a greyhound.”
The sublime Cervantes’ Don Quixote.
“In the long unfurling of his life, from tight-wound kid hustler in a wool suit riding the trains out of Cheyenne to geriatric limper in this spooled-out year, Mero had kicked down thoughts of the place where he began, a so-called ranch on strange ground at the south hinge of the Big Horns.”
Annie Proulx expects readers to focus hard with her first sentence of The Half-Skinned Steer, which is perhaps a tad shorter than her usual start. Her dense prose obliged me to re-read it three times. Is it effective to make the reader work harder? Not so much for commercial fiction perhaps, but rich prose requires a different mind-set and provides different rewards.
If we’re looking at contemporary commercial novels – especially for YA and genre fiction – then we’ve got a clear pattern for the opening lines; signal clearly to the reader that they’ve begun a story that will go somewhere interesting, raise intrigue and perhaps expectations, hint at the flavour or style of the storytelling, say something about the character of the narrator or protagonist, hint at the world they’re in, and don’t waste a word.
If we’re looking at literary fiction, pretty much anything goes because, arguably, the reader is already more committed than genre readers and, as mentioned, seeks slightly different rewards.
Whether we choose a workmanlike row of words or create sentences that shine like a distant torch guiding us from our quiet place of reading to a land of adventure, the story is the thing.
Ben Marshall’s author website: www.benmarshall-wordpirate.com
Writing Novels in Australia