“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
I mean even I know that one off by heart and I have the world’s worst memory. Tragically it’s just about the only first sentence I do know. No, not even the first sentences of my own novels. I have to look them up.
Pretty much every agent or editor or writer when giving advice will tell you that the first sentence is crucial. That you have to get it right! When they talk about what a first sentence should do they tend to say it should make you want to read on, which, well, yes, yes it should. But that’s kind of vague, isn’t it? How do you write a sentence that will make readers want to read on?
I think a more useful way of thinking about the first sentence is to think about its relationship to the rest of the novel. Many first sentences operate as a kind of shorthand for the entire novel, giving the reader a sense of what’s to come, who’s telling the story, and what kind of story it is. Or, almost the opposite, messing with the reader, getting them to think it’s one kind of book when it’s not, which perversely also gives the reader a sense of what’s to come: a novel that will mess with the reader.
But you don’t have to be all show-offy to achieve that. Here are two simple first sentences. The first from one of my favourite novels, I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith (1948):
I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.
The narrator is a writer, possibly an eccentric who likes to sit in places not traditionally used for sitting, or perhaps a child who hasn’t quite figured out where it is or isn’t appropriate to sit or doesn’t care, or it could be someone with some kind of foot or ankle or lower leg disorder which means their feet need to be soaked, though why in the kitchen sink and not in a bucket? What is the “this” that she’s writing? Is is a journal? Does that mean “this” is a novel told in journal entries? Or is it a letter? Is this an epistolary novel? Or is it a novel that’s telling us it’s a novel? So many questions. Such an arresting image. And now I want to read the book all over again.
The second one is from another favourite, Courtney Milan’s marvellous The Suffragette Scandal (2014):
“Edward Clark was disgusted with himself.”
This is the opening sentence and, boy, does it sum up the whole book in which Edward Clark continues to be disgusted with himself throughout. I’d argue that a big part of the plot is him learning to do something about that disgust, to change himself into someone who doesn’t disgust himself. Though it becomes clear that the initial incident that he’s being disgusted about is not, in fact, a big deal. Nor is he that disgusted. It’s more a figure of speech.
So, how do you write a good first sentence?
Buggered if I know. But I will suggest that it helps to not think about that first sentence when writing your first, raw, zero draft. For me that’s a recipe for sitting there staring at the blank page, coming up with nothing, and developing an increasingly strong urge to tweet, or go kill zombies, or clean the kitchen, or go for a run, or anything else that isn’t writing.
If I think about writing a perfect pearl of a first sentence I cry. So instead I just type, banging out the story, characters, ideas that are pushing me into starting a new novel.
I started my next novel2 in September 2013. I didn’t write the first sentence—or indeed the first chapter—until January 2015. The previous first chapter I threw out because it wasn’t working. This has been true of most of my published novels.
That said, you might be one of those writers who has to have a perfectly formed first sentence in order to keep writing. There are such writers. Many of whom manage to write many novels. So do not despair if you turn out to be one of them. Every kind of writer has their own burdens and to keep us own our toes what those burdens are can change from story to story.
For me it’s impossible to write a good first sentence until I know what the novel is about and not being an outliner I can’t know what the book is about until I’ve written the first draft. Perhaps outliners bang out the perfect opening sentence straight away? Perhaps some of them have that perfect sentence in their outline? Sometimes I am very envious of how I imagine outliners write.
Of course not all opening sentences sum up the entire book in a neat way. Or at least that’s not all they do. Consider the opening of Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987):
124 was spiteful.
So many questions it raises. How is 124 a who? How has a number become a name? Who is 124? Why are they spiteful? How can a number be spiteful? I must read and find out.
Then there’s massive generalisation openings, which Jane Austen brilliantly skewers with the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice. These kind of overblown aphoristic openings are a hallmark of nineteenth century literature, and though oft quoted, are way harder to get away with these days—unless you’re writing a novel set in the nineteenth century. Though that makes me want to try one of these openings with a contemporary novel. Take Dickens’ opening to A Tale of Two Cities from 1859:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
While Dickens’ opening here is overblown it’s hard to deny that period of French history was kind of intense.
Then there’s Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1877):
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
I call total bullshit on this opening. There are as many different kinds of happiness as there are of misery. So, boo to you, Tolstoy. Maybe it’s less stupid in the original Russian?
There is, however, no denying the poetry of both those openings. They trip off the tongue and are very easy to remember. Though, most people only ever quote the first two clauses of the
Tale of Two Cities opening because we are lazy creatures. Maybe that’s why long, elegiac opening sentences went out of fashion?
TL;DR First sentences. They are important. But don’t sweat them unless you have to. The beauty of writing as opposed to, say, live debating, is that you can rewrite until you get it right.