Don’t Get Caught Up In The “Cult of the First Sentence”

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There’s this cult of the opening sentence, as if crafting a perfect first line is the only key to writing a best-selling novel. Here’s my take: it isn’t.

Chances are, I’ve already lost you. According to one website, a writer has ten seconds to capture a reader’s attention. Ten seconds? That is, by my calculations… let’s see… carry the one… divided by whatever is happening on Survivor this week… not a lot of time. The pressure is real, people. Everything depends on your first sentence. Just ask the Internet.

Search “first sentence” online and you’ll see article upon article written by people who know stuff about how important your first sentence is.

Stephen King — he’s famous — once said, “An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”

This quote is EVERYWHERE, but is it just me, or does that sound like Stephen King wants us to join some weird sex cult?

Let’s see if we can find some advice with less of a whiff of Kool-Aid.

K. M. Weiland, in an article on helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com says, “Opening lines are an art form unto themselves. They must introduce a story’s tone, the author’s wit, the plot itself, and, most importantly, a reason why this story is worth the readers’ time.”

Oh, and I’m gonna need you to do that in five words or less, m’kay? No pressure.

“Every part of the story is important,” says someone named Lana Adler at Owlcation.com, “but nothing is as crucial to captivating the reader as the opening sentence.”

OK! I get it! It’s crucial! Damn.

So how does one go about creating this line that has to do so much? Let’s learn from the classics!

Do a search for “greatest opening lines in the history of forever” and you’ll see list after list, each one citing the same suspects: Austen, Salinger, Plath, Camus, Melville. Read these sentences, we are told, and ye shall learn the art of the opener.

For example, one of the most lauded opening lines in literary history is from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

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, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Clearly, the lesson we should learn from this classic is to get paid by the word. But honestly, could anyone write such an opening sentence today without some editor going to town on it?

first sentence of A Tale Of Two Cities

Where, indeed is the hook? You gotta have a hook. Everyone says so.

Let’s take a gander at some other classics, oft-cited for their hook value:

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” —Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell

BOOM! See what Orwell does there? Drops a proverbial bomb on that last word. A clock striking thirteen? Wuuuh? Our clocks only go to twelve! I need to read on! So: Bonus points for the surprise ending. Minus points, however, for the passive voice and the severe lack of gunfire. If someone’s not dying by the next sentence, I’m not sure I can waste my precious time.

“I’m pretty much fucked.” —The Martian, Andy Weir

Hmmm. OK, I LOVE the use of profanity. I kind of want to read on. On the other hand… I feel like you’re trying too hard. I don’t know. I may be willing to give this another sentence, but I can’t promise anything.

“They shoot the white girl first.” —Paradise, Toni Morrison

Six words and someone’s already being shot! I’m hooked! Couple of thoughts, though, Toni: our test group said it would play better if the victim was a middle-aged, wealthy white male wearing a Panama hat. Something to think about for the rewrite.

“It is not easy to cut through a human head with a hacksaw.” —Travels, Michael Crichton

OMG, Michael, I adore this. Talk about taking the violence up a level! Anyone can shoot a person. But you have to be one twisted SOB to take a hacksaw to a head. Also, (is this weird?) I feel a little sorry for the narrator. He — is it a he? I feel like it’s a he — is struggling. I’m so conflicted. Like, I want it to be easier for him to cut through this human head. And yet? Should I be feeling this way? So many feels. One tiny thing. I almost hate to bring it up, but let’s make those first two words into a contraction. Thirteen words is a little long, and your narrator comes across as a teensy bit elitist.

“It was the day my grandmother exploded.” —The Crow Road, Iain Banks

Banks FTW! Boom goes grandma! That’s what I’m talking about! I mean, come on: if someone isn’t exploding in the first seven words of your story, are you even trying? (Also, bonus points for having that extra I in your first name. Our marketing department is already firing on all cylinders. You’re gonna be yuuge!)

The cult of the opening sentence

There’s this cult of the opening sentence, as if crafting a perfect first line is the key to writing a best-selling novel.

I get the fascination. First sentences are (usually) pretty short. We can wrap our arms around them and dissect them. Maybe they can show us the way towards enlightenment.

But here’s my advice: Don’t sweat it.

Yes, it’s important to craft a good first sentence. You don’t want to start with something prosaic. Don’t start with the weather. Don’t open your eyes. Don’t tell us how normal everything is. Do begin your book in medias res. Do give us your voice. This is all true.

But the whole importance of the opening sentence has gotten completely out of hand. Especially the “you need a hook” angle.

Here is some advice from a writer I found on the web. A bad opening sentence, she tells us, is this:

“Alexa had just turned thirteen.”

OK. This is not a fantastic opening sentence. Kids turn thirteen all the time, our writer tells us. There’s nothing about this line to pull us in. Fine. But her advice is to change the line to this (and this is real):

“Alexa had just turned thirteen the day the planet exploded.”

I mean, honestly.

Granted, I’m cherry-picking the worst example of writing advice. But this trend is real. There are whole websites dedicated to writing and critiquing first lines.

It’s got to stop.

As an editor I see the results of this “first line is everything” phenomenon all the time. Authors feel like the absolutely most dramatic thing ever has to happen in the first six words or all is lost.

It’s beyond cliché: it’s ridiculous.

Seriously, one can read the most insane opening sentences now and be completely unmoved by it.

“The only thought that occurred to me as I sawed my grandmother’s head off, was ‘Did I leave the oven on?’”

“My daughter took her first step the day the universe collapsed.”

“In front of me was a snail, and I was desperately in love with it.”

OMG make it stop!

Here’s the thing; Some of the best books have boring, even clichéd opening lines. Here’s the first sentence of my all-time favorite book:

“It was love at first sight.” —Catch-22, Joseph Heller

Or:

“For a long time I would go to bed early.” In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust

Neither sentence has a hook. Neither necessarily makes us want to read on. Both are beloved classics. These are not exceptions to the rule.

This is from an article by someone named Colin Falconer from his own website:

“A good cover may make us pick the book up and think about buying it. But it’s the first lines [that] are crucial in helping us decide whether we are going to keep reading or not. For my own part, I’ve read plenty of good books whose first lines I don’t remember. I even tore out the first three pages of one of my favorite novels – The Poisonwood Bible – when I came to re-read it. That prologue was so dreary I almost gave up on the book that first time. Thank God I persisted.”

Thank God. But then his very next line is this:

“You can never underestimate the power of a good opening line.”

Does he even hear himself?

Lest you think I’m above the fray, I am not. I have stressed over the first sentences of my books, too, and wasted way too much time rewriting them.

It’s not worth it. There’s no award for the greatest opening line. You’re not going to get a plaque in the Writer’s Hall of Fame. So, let us all join hands and put an end to the Cult of the First Sentence.

Write your first sentence. Make sure it’s as good as your next sentence. And keep going.

 

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Related Posts
A Stellar Book Opening… It’s Not About The Weather
Narrative Structure, Part One: What It Is and How To Use It
Narrative Structure, Part Two: It’s OK To Stray (or: Don’t Forget Your Cockroach Races)
Finding Your Voice As A Writer
The Three-act Structure: Formulaic or Foundational?

 

Scott McCormick

About Scott McCormick

Scott McCormick has written 32 posts in this blog.

Scott McCormick is the author of the Mr. Pants series of graphic novels for kids. He also runs Storybook Editing, offering developmental editing for authors. His new audiobook, Rivals! Frenemies Who Changed the World, has been described as “drunk history for middle-grade kids” and is available on Audible. Scott can be reached at storybookediting@gmail.com. Photo credit Karen Cooley.

28 COMMENTS

  1. Don’t get caught up in the “Cult of the First Sentence.”

    That’s a perfect first sentence. I’m lazy. When I browse, clicking and reading as much as a screen at a time is hard work. You made me click. You made a firm suggestion in an authoritative tone. You promised me an explanation. You implied that there would be a story, and I’m a sucker for stories.

    A joke has to get your attention with the first sentence. “Some folks are extremely attached to their cars.” That’s a hook, because we all know someone who obsesses over his car. A good joke gets into the action by the second sentence at the latest. The combination of first and second sentence is what makes us keep on reading or listening. You did that by adding, “Here’s my take: it isn’t.”

    • I recommend writing a really hilariously bad first sentence, and submitting it to the Bulwer-Lytton contest. Also reading all the winners when they come out.

  2. Most who give advice to writers are trying to obtain paying clients to be able to create the lifestyle their writing does not provide them. Would you go to skid row for banking advice?

  3. It’s Iowa workshop’s influence. It’s trying to mechanize creativity. It’s 10 words out of 100,000. So it’s stupid. And cults are bad things, are they not? There are no “Has to’s” except to be understandable on the human level. The great ones break rules all the time. So have at it if you think you are one of the great ones. My guess is the great ones never thought about being great.

  4. Wonderful. This article made me smile and made my day! I love humor, and this was so droll, yet inspirational!! Thanx! I am still smiling and I have not changed any of my first sentences!! Bravo!

  5. I love learning from other authors. It seems that there is always something to be curious enough about to find out from them. I hope I have a good opening sentence in the Novel that I am attempting to write.
    I think the ending as well should be great, unexpected or satisfying.
    I love tips so let’s keep them coming!
    Thanks.

  6. Thank you. Love exploding myths.

    But where is the passive voice in 1984 opening? Not all “ing” verbs are passive. It’s whether the subject is doing the action. Different grammars use different terms for “were striking”, e.g., “past progressive” tense, but active voice.

    The “Tale…” was hysterical!

  7. Great article & absolutely spot on! I give a book at least the first three chapters to draw me in regardless of the first line & believe me I’ve read some wet first liners. Having written short stories now for a number of years with some publishing success, the stories I believed were smack-you-in-the-face bestsellers turned out to be bin fodder whilst the one’s I thought were mediocre bordering on bin fodder were accepted for publication! There’s no hard & fast rule about writing – what appeals to one will be worthy of being pulped into toilet paper to another. You can’t please everyone.

  8. Indeed. I agree. In fact much writing advice falls under this ‘cult’ umbrella. Clearly, there are some rules, some do’s and don’ts, but one can only give writing the best he or she got and then continue to enjoy the scenery along the way. Good article.

  9. I have read thousands of books and never have I slammed one shut because of the first sentence. People read books because: it’s their genre; it’s a favourite author; someone recommended it; or, they read the cover blurb and that interested them – not the first sentence.

  10. Indeed! The problem with having a ‘Big Bang’ for a first line is the bar is then set so high to keep the momentum going and create that sense of rising suspense that the whole book has to continue with ‘explosions’ or else the reader feels let down. Some of my favorite books have first lines more like quite whispers, arousing interest, drawing you into the intrigue and the setting.
    e.g Stephen King, The Shining ‘Jack Torrance thought Officious little prick’.
    Also King – The Green Mile ‘This happened in 1932, when the state penitentiary was still at Cold Mountain.’
    ‘We came on the wind of the carnival’ Chocolat – Joanne Harris
    ‘At dusk they pour from the sky’ All the light we cannot see. Anthony Dour.

  11. That was a good article and even funny in parts. I do appreciate the article. I am learning there is a lot of not necessarily GOOD writing advice all over the internet. We need to take these things into consideration but not make them a gospel truth. Some of it is even contradictory. One person says you need to start with action and danger; another says no one care untill they are invested in the character first. That can take some time or paragraphs. Maybe it depends on the genre?

    I liked “Gone with the Wind,” but I remember thinking, after one or two chapters – “Holy crap! You could have a bar fight and shoot-out by now!” But, hey – it was a good book. A bit tedious in some parts, but glad I read it.

    One more thing – Maybe if your opening line is “too” good, the rest of the story may not live up to it!

    Thanks –
    Paul

  12. I think it was Stephen King who recommended picking up a book and reading the first paragraph. I found single sentence paragraphs so I made it “read the first page” in my mind until I found a couple one line first pages. Now I read the first couple of pages and find I have a fairly good sense of whether I want to read the entire piece. I have screwed that up a couple times, but it holds true for the vast majority which saves me money and time.

    Thank you for the post. I found it quite entertaining and informative.

    Add me as a subscriber to your “Anti-Cult” newsletter too.

  13. You amused me!
    I wrote a novel and I did all those good things, tortured the protagonist, did a W plot line, had great time, even editing…..but,
    once you know the tricks, you critique the author and don’t suspend disbelief.
    I read less fiction now.
    It’s better to look like you’re not trying.

  14. The Big Sleep has one of the best first paragraphs ever. The weather and then, oh no! what he’s wearing.
    It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

  15. I am drawn to a book by the short synopsis on the back cover. That determines why I want to read this novel. I don’t jump overboard if the first sentence doesn’t floor me.

  16. Preaching to the choir, but thank the Muses someone said it. I’m tired of hearing the same rules over and over. I mean, new writers, pay attention and learn, but intermediate writers, calm down! But have to disagree with your definition of passive voice. Passive voice means the direct object becomes the subject. The thirteen was struck by the clock. Helping verbs don’t always indicate passive voice. Fyi

  17. Oh thank you thank you. If we took notice of all the advice we can glean online, we’d never get our books finished.
    Every new ‘don’t do’ would send us into yet another editing frenzy. Like it.

  18. THANK YOU for this excellent advice. I am a self published author of children’s books. A little different take on the first sentence but i am in the process of stretching my self with a young adult fantasy. I didn’t angst over the first sentence, I just let it flow. It is so easy to get caught up in all of the “experts.” I have read many books I thoroughly enjoyed and it was not necessarily the first sentence that grabbed me and pulled me in.

  19. Who has read the first sentence, first page, first chapter of “The English Patient” and managed to stay awake? IMO a terrible start to what many have hailed as one of the best novels of the second half of the 20th Century and a major literary prize winner.

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