Wednesday, August 12, 2009

First Sentences in Short Stories

Just to keep you posted on the results of all that thinking I did on Monday, I added 1,400 words to my novel yesterday, and knocked four promo items off my To Do List. I will take a bow while you all applaud. Thank you, thank you.

Today, I decided to do one of my favorite things and take a look at outstanding (in my humble opinion) first sentences. I usually do novels, but this time I'm going to focus on short stories. To narrow it even further, I'm selecting only crime stories. No analysis, no comments, just opening lines. So, here we go.

"You asked what kind of record could be worth killing someone for, and if you were smarter you would know the answer is an old blues record." ..........Kevin Guilfoile, O Death Where is Thy Sting?, from the collection Chicago Blues (Bleak House Books, 2007)

"Harry Chase sat in the back of a small casino chapel watching as bikers dressed in wedding casual--black leather, chains optional--exchanged prayers for endless roads, a long happy life together." ..........John Wessel, Neighbors, from Murder in Vegas (Forge, 2005)

"If God (or Whoever's in charge) had wanted Dr. Netta Bernstein to continue living, He (or She) wouldn't have made it so easy for me to kill her." ..........Harlan Ellison, Killing Bernstein, in A Century of Great Suspense Stories (Berkley Prime Crime, 2007)

"Contrary to popular belief, the human cranium isn't a single helmet-shaped bone but eight bones fused together, and the facial mask is fourteen bones fused together, and these, in the victim, had been smashed with a blunt object, smashed, dented, and pierced, as if the unknown killer had wanted not merely to kill his victim but to obliterate her." ..........Joyce Carol Oates, The Skull, originally in Harper's Magazine and reprinted in The Best American Mysery Stories 2003 ( Houghton Mifflin, 2003)

"Stubborn and mean are a lethal combination, a perfect case in point being Conroy Bittune--an old coot of sixty, as skinny and dried-up as a stick of jerky." ..........Faye Kellerman, Malibu Dog, in Sisters in Crime 3 (Berkley 1990)

"I became a prostitute because I was bored." .........Faye Kellerman, Bonding, in Sisters in Crime (Berkley, 1989)

That's it. Just a few sentences that would draw me into a story and make me read on to see what comes next. Does an exercise like this make you check back to the first sentence in your own current project to see if it measures up?


Galen Kindley--Author said...

In bookstores, I find myself picking up book after book and reading the first sentence. I’m surprised at the disparity in effectiveness. I read a blog the other day that said something like. Book first sentences are important, but, make the first sentence of each chapter and scene just as effect as the first one of the book. Good point, I’d never thought of it that way.

Best Regards, Galen
Imagineering Fiction Blog

Karen Walker said...

Yes, first sentences are crucial. I was never quite satisfied with mine.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

These were some great examples, Patricia. Now I'm feeling all insecure about mine! I'll mess around with my WIP's first sentence today for sure...

Mystery Writing is Murder

Elspeth Antonelli said...

First sentences are important - but so are second sentences. I aim for each sentence to pull the reader forward. Keep the ball rolling and be ruthless in trimming the fat - that's my motto. I DO, however, take special note of the first sentence of any novel I'm reading. .

Jody Hedlund said...

Hi Patricia,
Sounds like you accomplished quite a bit! And I love looking at opening hooks--it's such a great way to help us see that there are so many different ways to grab a reader's attention!

Thanks for stopping by my blog! I'll look forward to getting to know you!

Terry Odell said...

I hate my openings. Change them constantly. I don't think I'm ever satisfied, but they're still easier for me than the last sentences.

Marvin D Wilson said...

Yes it sure does. And first sentences are of absolute paramount importance. Followed by opening scene, then first chapter. Next in importance is the pivotal 3rd chapter, where most peeps will either be hooked to read the whole book and geeked by what they just read or start yawning and realize the whole book isn't as good as it started out as.

My opinion. Good post!

The Old Silly

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

An exercise like this makes me want to read all those stories! Great examples. My favorite was, "If God (or Whoever's in charge) had wanted Dr. Netta Bernstein to continue living, He (or She) wouldn't have made it so easy for me to kill her."


First sentences, but most especially the first 1-2 paragraphs, are what make or break a book for me. If the first paragraph or two don't hook me, I put the book down. I really liked a couple of these.