The first sentence

David Goehring (CC/Flickr)

Let’s consider one of the most famous first sentences in English literature:

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.

Dickens’s opening to A Tale of Two Cities would probably not be well received today. The sentence is too long and too abstract. Yet it remains instantly recognisable. Why is that?

The whole sentence exudes tension. It places opposing concepts next to each other and insists the apparent contradictions are compatible, and then it rounds it up by telling us this is just like today. It’s impossible to read that sentence without the sense that something is out of kilter, which makes it very hard to put down.

To give a more contemporary example, from Robert Harris’s The Ghost:

The moment I heard how McAra died I should have walked away.

It’s a lot more immediate that A Tale of Two Cities, but carries just as much tension. It gives us a name, a viewpoint and something that’s happened. It gives us no idea how it all fits together, but that’s not the job of the first sentence. The job of the first sentence is to persuade the reader that something interesting is going on. We don’t know who McAra is, how he died, or who the narrator who should have walked away is. It makes us want to know by setting up tension on several levels. A death is dramatic by nature, but a death that should have been walked away from is even more so. Given that we know the narrator didn’t do what he should have done, we infer there have been consequences to that and want to know what they are. All in eight words.

Hartwig HKD (CC/Flickr)

Other famous first sentences give even less information about the content of the story, but just give an image that can’t help but grab the reader’s attention. William Gibson’s Neuromancer:

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

How can you not want to know what is happening beneath that sky, or what sort of mind would conjure up that image?

Here’s Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar:

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they executed the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.

It gives us the image of the execution, not of a regular criminal but of married couple who spied for the Soviets. Throw in the oppressive heat and Plath has juxtaposed two very powerful images against the weakness of not knowing what she was doing there in the first place.

The common factor in all these examples is that it whatever the technique, they evoke a tension between characters or concepts in the first line. Grab the reader’s attention and you’re off to a good start.

It’s worth another look at Elmore Leonard’s rules, which contain some points on what not to do at the beginning, but they need reading in the context of his explanations as well. He qualifies them enough to suggest he didn’t mean them as rigidly as they are often quoted. As we saw above, William Gibson did himself no harm by starting a book with the weather.


Exercise:

Return to your draft and ask yourself if the first sentence contains tension. If not, write a first sentence that does. It may work better to replace your current first sentence, or just to put your new sentence at the beginning.

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Posted in Story development, Writing

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