Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Importance of the First Sentence

First things first.  The first sentence of a story breaks the silence.  Many of us will read any first sentence of anything.  But will we read the second?  The first sentence has to make the reader want to go on to the next.  Whether it charms, amazes, intrigues, shocks or seduces you, it has to do so quickly and must take you out of your world and drop you into another.  And now it’s impossible not to go on, not to want to know what’s up with these people.

What makes a good first sentence? Start clean and simple.  Don’t try to write pretty, noble or big.  You don’t need fancy language.

 The desire at the start is not to say anything, not to make meanings but to create a sudden experience of reality.

  Examples from former students (with their permission):

  “I am wearing my sister today.”

  “You have to drive like hell to get there.”  

  “My mother smoked herself to death.”

  “I found a white rose in an otherwise empty shopping cart.”

  “It was July and that ice cream cake wasn’t going to make it.”

A good beginning sentence is full of intimation and assurance that something compelling, something surprising and unusual is going to happen:

  “Ray disliked Susan more than any human being alive, yet her naked body was thrusting against him at that very moment.” – Ron Ries, “The Lawn Mower”

 “All happy families are alike, but an unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” –Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina.

 “When it came to concealing his troubles, Tommy Wilhelm was not less capable than the next fellow.” –Saul Bellow, Seize the Day.

  “Bald and wrinkled was not what I wanted to be when I grew up.” – Anonymous

 “It’s just amazing how friendly you become when you’re on Xanax.” –Sam Shepard, “Land of the Living,” from The New Yorker, September 21, 2009.

 Don’t introduce a story, just jump right in.  Catch a character in mid-flight.  Begin in the middle of things:
  “My wife Norma had run off with Guy Depree and I was waiting around for the credit card billings to come in so I could see where they had gone.” – Charles Portis, The Dog of the South,

  “Dr. Iannis had enjoyed a satisfactory day in which none of his patients had died or got any worse.”  - Louis De BerniĆ©res, Corelli’s Mandolin,

 “She is standing under the great clock in Grand Central Station and she is waiting for me.”  -Carole Maso, Ghost Dance.

A good first sentence is intriguing and immediate.  The leisurely beginning is nearly impossible in a short story.  The first sentence should be striking and surprising but not necessarily short.

 “One day you have a home and the next you don’t, but I’m not going to tell you my particular reasons for being homeless, because it’s my secret story, and Indians have to work hard to keep secrets from hungry white folks.”  - Sherman Alexie, What You Pawn I Will Redeem.

"Dr. Koestler’s baboon, George Babbitt, liked to sit near the foot of the table when the physician took his evening meal and eat a paste the doctor had made consisting of ripe bananas and Canadian Mist whiskey.” – Thom Jones, “Way Down Deep in the Jungle” from Cold Snap.

 However, sometimes the shorter the better:

“My father ain’t worth two-bits.” – Anonymous

“He had a gun.” – Ericka Tavares, “Easy Money”

 "I once saw a bloke try to kill himself.”  -Alan Sillitoe, On a Saturday Afternoon.”

 “She wondered how many times a week he had to do this.”  -Thom Jones, I Want to Live!

 “A man came along and fell in love with Dorrie Beck.” -Alice Munro, A Real Life.

 “First I must tell you how much I admired the slope of her sleeve.”  -William T. Vollman, Reading the Bride.  From The Rainbow Stories.

  “All children, except one, grow up.” -J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan.

 “Everyone in Lame Deer knew that old shit-brown Buick.”  -David Seals, The Powwow Highway.

  “I grew up with people who believed unequivocally in the spirits.” – Susanna Moore, “I Myself Have Seen It.”

 Try not to begin a story with long descriptions without first establishing a character or point of view:

Don’t write, “It was a dark and stormy night, the stars weren’t shining on the long, cold Southeast England rocky beach and the torrid rain raced down from the gray looming sky.”

  Rather, “The man pulled his jacket over his head, but the wind-driven rain beat against his face.”

  Now we have a character.  Let’s get on with the story!




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