Friday, August 6, 2010

Killer First Sentences

You all know how much I love to talk about first sentences. I'm at it again, mostly because I've made the first pass through my WIP to change the point of view in about eight chapters, and now I'm doing the fine tuning on the first chapter. This is the deep, deep revision where I have to make final, final decisions about how to write the narrative. My first sentence will lead the way. I need to get it right.

This is the stage of writing when the books piled on the table by my reading chair come in very handy. I start through the stack, reading first sentences, first paragraphs, first pages, and even first chapters. Today the focus is on killer first sentences:

"A library could be a dangerous place."
--------------------The Book of Spies by Gayle Lynds

I'm about half way through The Book of Spies. I like this sentence because I love libraries so much and think of them as safe havens. Dangerous? In what way?

"How weird that you could push open your front door and know in an instant that something was wrong."
--------------------Rumor Has It by Jill Mansell

This one sounds like a great first sentence for a mystery, but the book is actually chick lit. Most likely the "something wrong" is not a dead body, but a romantic or family problem. Still, I'm curious. I'll read on to find out what the "something wrong" is.

"My name is Stephanie Plum and I was born and raised in the Chambersburg section of Trenton, where the top male activities are scarfing pastries and pork rinds and growing love handles."
--------------------To The Nines by Janet Evanovich

I already know how much I enjoy the Stephanie Plum series, so I'd be reading the book even if the first sentence was boring. This is a good one because it sets the location and gives us a hint about Stephanie's attitude.

"Miranda didn't hear the sound he made when his face hit the sidewalk."
--------------------City of Dragons by Kelli Stanley

This is a great beginning for a mystery because it immediately raises questions. Who was the guy who hit the sidewalk face first? Was he drunk and just passed out? Did he jump from a window on the tenth floor? Does Miranda know this guy?

First sentences can do a lot of different things, but it helps if they're interesting enough to make the reader want to hurry on to the second sentence, and the third. I'm still working on that part.


welcome to my world of poetry said...

Very interesting Patricia, some first sentances do stick in people's mind I agree,


Margot Kinberg said...

Patricia - First sentences really do affect the way we think about a story, don't they? I think my vote for most powerful first sentence is from Ruth Rendell's A Judgement in Stone: Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.

Terry Odell said...

My favorite Evanovich is from Hard Eight: "Lately I've been spending a lot of time rolling on the ground with men who think a stiffy represents personal growth."

I knew I'd like the book since I'd already read the 1st 7, but this one really sets the tone.

Terry's Place
Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

Sugar said...

I need to re-think my first sentence now..It seems lame :)

Jan Morrison said...

Oh, I'm with you - it is like inviting people into your home - the way you great them at the door sets the whole interaction up.Jan Morrison

Clarissa Draper said...

I love first lines. I'm currently helping a friend edit her book and her first line "This was the spot where Mandolyn fell to her death." really caught my attention. Great post.


Anonymous said...

I don't have a great first sentence, but a pretty darn good opening paragraph. Fortunately, most authors do not place a emphasis on a single great opening one-line sentence.

Stephen Tremp

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

The opening sentence is not my strength.

N. R. Williams said...

I have written and rewritten my first sentence time and again. But it is not a murder mystery but a fantasy, so it is totally different giving the feel of what is critical to the heroine.
N. R. Williams, fantasy author

Kay said...

Congrats on the progress.

First sentences are important to snag a reader's interest, but I think I agree with Steve on the first paragraph. It fixes the interest so the reader doesn't drift away.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Good morning, everyone. I'm here just for a minute before I head out to an appointment. Just wanted to mention the large number of books I looked at that had quite ordinary first sentences. In most cases, they were also short. I think that's another good technique to get us to the second sentence.

Yvonne and Jan, whether reading or writing, the first sentence of a novel is something I always notice.

I had to laugh out loud at your favorite, Terry. I remember that one, but didn't have a copy of the book handy to quote accurately. Evanovich is my kind of writer, and Stephanie Plum is one of my favorite protagonists.

Margot & Clarissa -- those are great first sentences.

Sugar -- we have to be careful when we judge our own first sentences -- we tend to be too hard on ourselves. Even if it's a great standalone sentence, it still needs to seamlessly flow into the rest of the story. Otherwise, you may need to "kill your darling" and sacrifice the killer sentence to something more appropriate. I'll be running my chapter by two critique groups before I make a final decision.

Nancy -- world building in a fantasy novel gives you an opportunity to do a lot of magical things in your first page. It also provides challenges, because you need to establish time and place with terminology the reader doesn't understand yet. I think that would be a lot harder than a historical or contemporary novel beginning.

Steve and Alex -- you know the first sentence thing is my own personal passion. Not all opening sentences are newsworthy, but the opening paragraphs may be fantastic. Since I usually invest at least 10 pages and sometimes 50 pages in reading a novel before I give up on it, the first sentence is not the final word in whether or not I read the book.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Oops, Hi, Kay -- we must have been typing at the same time. I think I answered your comment with my note to Steve and Alex above. I just love great first sentences -- they're fun.

N A Sharpe said...

Interesting process, Patricia. I know the early sentences/paragraphs/chapter sets the tone. I need to check out some of my favorite books :)

Interesting post! Thanks,
Nancy from Realms fo Thought

Hart Johnson said...

The first sentence of the book I'm editing is:


(it's a cozy mystery) *snicker* I love great first sentences. Definitely set the tone. Not sure that I've got it yet (I am much more often really thrilled with my last line--the best of which is for a fan fiction--my second long work ever "So, spank me." I will never beat that, but I will try.)

Carol Kilgore said...

These are all great openers. I so struggle with this.

Ann Best said...

I like reading first sentences just to see how someone decided to begin a book. And to think there are only a million plus ways to begin!!

Cat Woods said...

Great examples. I am with you on the importance of a great first sentence. Good luck finding yours!

Hold my hand: a social worker's blog said...

Very interesting!