Those Critical First Sentences

I love to read the first sentence of a book I’m about to buy.  I mean, I do the other usual things, like reading the back of it to get the basic premise of the story, or the inside flap.  And then, I might randomly flip to the middle pages, see how the words “look”, is there lots of dialogue, too much or just right, etc.

But, first sentences are what usually make my mind up about the purchase.  For me, they immediately give me the sense of the story and how it will flow.  For those of us who read all the time, we know right away from that one sentence whether or not we’ll like the book.   For instance, I’ve picked up books, looked at their covers, read the flap or the back, and then read the first sentence only to put it down and decide against it.

When writing a novel, first sentences are critical to drawing a reader in, so much so, you can easily find web sites all about them.  Like this one.  They’ve chosen what they view as the “100 Best First Lines”:

http://www.pantagraph.com/article_a125216a-649f-5414-88b5-76a688ea3b6a.html

Or this one, that helps you figure out how to write that “killer opener”:

http://www.fuelyourwriting.com/the-most-important-sentence-how-to-write-a-killer-opening/

Here are a few examples of first sentences that came from some of my favorite books:

1)  After dark the rain began to fall again, but he had already made up his mind to go and anyway it had been raining for weeks.  (THE STORY OF EDGAR SAWTELLE, David Wroblewski)

2)  Henry and I dug the hole seven feet deep.  (MUDBOUND, Hillary Jordan)

3)  I’ve been called Bone all my life, but my name’s Ruth Anne.  (BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA, Dorothy Allison)

4)  When I was little, I would think of ways to kill my Daddy.  (ELLEN FOSTER, Kaye Gibbons)

5)  My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie.  (LOVELY BONES, Alice Sebold)

In all of these, I had a distinct image in my mind of the protagonist – unless the book was written from multiple viewpoints (like numbers 1 and 2), but still, they were distinctive and made me want to keep reading to see what they would say next.

I’ve read (often) that the opening sentence has to hook a reader and that even though the first pages are critical, the first sentence is even more so.  In some ways, I wished I hadn’t learned that.  Why?  Because I’m such a perfectionist.  When you have the daunting task in front of you to write a WHOLE book, not just that one sentence, yet you can’t break away from tweaking the darn thing over and over, well, it can take a long time to get a book done.  The first sentence is the thing I come back to the most.  With my first novel, I wished I’d kept track of how many times I changed it.  I bet it would have filled up all the pages that eventually held the entire story.  Same with the second one.  I’m still finishing that book, but I’m already obsessing about that darn sentence!

When I read first sentences like the ones above, all I can do is question the strength of the ones I’ve written.  Below is the first sentence of my first book:

My diary was my best friend until I gave it up as key evidence against Uncle Ray.

This is the sentence in my second book:

I was going to be in a heap a trouble if I got caught. 

Feel free to drop me a comment and tell me what you think.  Is one stronger than the other?  Are they equal?  Most importantly, would you want to keep reading?

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