Feb 18, 2015

Opening Sentences

Posted by AJ Blythe at Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Thursday, March 17th, I spent the morning in anxiety, the afternoon in ecstasy, and the evening unconscious. 
"Risk" by Dick Francis

In defense of Althalus, it should be noted that he was in very tight financial circumstances and more than a little tipsy when he agreed to undertake the theft of the Book. 
 "The Redemption of Althalus" by David and Leigh Eddings

Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. 
 "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" by JK Rowling

I'd never given much thought to how I would die - though I'd had reason enough in the last few months - but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.
 "Twighlight" by Stephenie Meyer

I love first sentences. To be drawn in from the first few words is something I look for in a book. The above 4 examples are all written by some of the world's most successful authors, and all are favourites of mine. But I've never really thought about these sentences. What draws my interest? When I started to consider it I realised they all do the same thing:
  • they all introduce something about the characters - and in all but the Harry Potter example, the main characters
  • they all make me ponder a question - What could cause such a range of emotions in one day? What is the Book and why would Althalus not agree to steal it unless he was tipsy? Why would you need to be able to say you were normal, let alone be proud of it? How was she dying if it wasn't something you could imagine?
  • by making me ponder a question I have to read on to find my answer (they immediately captured me)
  • they are all 'different', original openings
  • they are all simple - simple language and simple ideas 
Do you have a favourite first sentence?


Colin Smith on February 19, 2015 at 1:51 AM said...

I have mixed feelings about first lines. On the one hand, I like a great opening line, and like to write them if I can. On the other, I wonder how much that opening line compels me to read the rest of the novel? I don't know that I've ever judged a book by its opening line. First couple of chapters, maybe. A number of writer advice blog/books place great emphasis on grabbing the reader's attention with that first line. I think that's a good goal, but if my own experience is anything to go by, I'm usually interested in reading the book for some other reason than the first sentence, so I'll at least give the first 50 pages a chance. For me, that's more the make-or-break of a novel.

Those are good examples of first lines, AJ. :)

AJ Blythe on February 19, 2015 at 10:53 PM said...

I guess I come at first lines from 2 different viewpoints as well - writer and reader.

Like you Colin, I don't judge a book by its first line. But the examples above are all favourites of mine so maybe there is something in it?

But as a writer I realise the importance of your first line. I was fortunate enough to participate in a "Kristin Nelson reads the slush pile" workshop where my ms was selected to be read. Confronting, but worth it. Especially to see what made her read on and what made her stop. I definitely began to see the value of the first sentence after that!

Colin Smith on February 21, 2015 at 8:40 AM said...

I guess I'm wondering how much it matters if, for example, you already like the author, or the book was recommended? In other words, if the pressure to sell someone on the book isn't there, do you still feel the same need for a killer first line? Does Stephen King, for example, worry about nailing that first line? I'm sure he tries to make sure that line is great, but does he care as much today when he has such a large fan-base as he did, say, 40 years ago?

Great first lines are certainly a wonderful thing, no argument there. :)

AJ Blythe on February 28, 2015 at 6:43 PM said...

Good point. I wonder if established authors do view their first line differently - or if their experience is reflected by the fact they don't have to think about their first lines, they naturally write good ones?

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