A lot of the fuss about the first sentence of a novel is born of a fixation for marketing and catchy phrases. Not surprising, you might say, at a time when the market is flooded with all manner of books vying for our attention. Do we have to be ruled by the diktats of those people who earn a living by punching people between the eyes or in the groin? My apologies to those who use more subtle methods to grab our attention. Are their methods the only way to get read as an author? Probably not! All the same, the first sentence is like the greeting handshake or the initial smile when you meet someone new. It inevitably colours what comes afterwards.
Unconvinced by examples given to us the other day during a seminar at the Geneva Writers Group, I decided to have a quick check using a few, widely different books from my own library. Here is the result.
Stephenie Meyer must have delighted those marketeers with the beginning of her first sentence to Twilight: “I have never given much thought to how I would die …” Even if you are one of those people that gets pleasure out of knocking the Twilight saga, you have to admit that first fragment of a sentence is really good. The sentence ends almost as well with: “…but even if I had I would not have imagined it like this.”
There are modern authors you’d expect to play the initial “punch” line to the full, like Dan Brown. Here’s the first sentence from Angels and Demons: “Physicist Leonardo Vetra smelled burning flesh, and he knew it was his own.” At least this is consistent with what follows. His books, with the possible exception of the Da Vinci Code, are nearly all punch and little else.
But the quest for impact can go too far, especially when it is divorced from the rest of the book. Just look at the damage it did to Scott Westerfeld’s novel Uglies which begins: “The early summer sky was the colour of cat vomit.” If anything, the reader might well put down the book in disgust. That would be a shame because it goes on to tell a good tale.
Of course, you can wax mystical and rave about “The sun had not yet risen” which is how Virginia Woolf began The Waves, but, if you set aside your expectations due to the fact that the author is famous, the sentence is somewhat banal. It is an opening, though, one that promises more and which encourages to read on.
Some first sentences skillfully set the scene with apparent limited effort. Take: “Once there four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy“, CS Lewis’s beginning to the Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe. Nothing like a firm handshake to start with, so you know where you are. It’s also a delightful nod at the traditional “Once upon a time…” beginning.
I personally rather like Maria V. Snyder’s beginning to Outside In, which opens with the sentence: “A vibration rippled through my body.” The books goes on to tell a gripping tale that is firmly anchored in bodily feelings, in particular touch and smell. But that beginning only really appears appropriate once you have read on.
There are, of course, first sentences that are absolutely masterly: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.” I can imagine the glee James Joyce must have had in writing that first sentence to Ulysses. But I doubt if it would get the marketing prize for the best first sentence.
In a quite different register, there are those beginnings that become iconic like the following: “Far out beyond the unchartered backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral Arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.” Shame Douglas Adams didn’t have time to write more.
Conclusion? Well, yes! The first sentence does appear to be important both for the book that follows and getting the attention of people you want to read it. But not necessarily as a punch line, rather as a key building block in a story to come.