Friday, December 10, 2010

Boom. I Shot You.

"Frank Lester stared at the hyper-influx emulsifiers and knew the cobalt infused preon compressors wouldn't work."

Is that drama? I've been thinking about opening lines lately and have wondered about how important they really are. I mean, if I were to work my tail off comprising the greatest story told in the last fifty years and it had a so-so first line does that mean it's a lost cause.


I recall being told once from a friend that when an agent was critiquing work in public that they took the first page from someone's work, put it on a projector (for the crowd, it was a conference) and said that they knew from the first sentence that they wouldn't want to represent that author. Ouch.

I've read often about how important it is to have a great first sentence. So I thought I would thumb through my library and pick a few at random and see how they look. Kind of a top 10 list of first sentences from novels I've found lying around the house.

Now, I'm of the opinion that one's first sentence is irrelevant. The first paragraph is a bit relevant, the first page is damned relevant. And it all culminates with the first four or five pages - which better be masterful.

So my personal opinion on the topic is something I came up with more or less off the top of my head. But I think it makes enough sense without thinking too much about it. I know when I'm browsing a the bookstore I won't make any real judgement on the quality of a book at least until I've read the first several paragraphs, a lone sentence means nothing.

However, I'm not going to reproduce several paragraphs of prose from several books on this blog. So I'll just do that with the first sentences. Why? To see if any sort of theme begins to emerge.

Now, the breakdown of books I chose looks like this:

Sci-fi - 3
Fantasy - 2
Horror - 1
Chic lit - 1
Literary/Mainstream - 2
Thriller - 1

I lied about them being random, but I did try to select from a good mix of different styles of writing and see what happened. I'll withhold the names of the books and authors for the sake of my precious little experiment, although I would think some will be pretty recognizable. Some will be pretty obscure (I'll post the author and title info in the comments section.)

  1. Before she became the Girl from Nowhere - the One Who Walked In, the First and Last and Only, who lived a thousand years - she was just a little girl in Iowa, named Amy.
  2. " No, I don't want the mangosteen."
  3. Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privit Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.
  4. In the beginning was a graph, more like diamond than graphite.
  5. Even at the moment she was born she knew something was wrong.
  6. The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
  7. Sophie Dempsey didn't like Temptation even before the Garveys smashed into her '86 Civic, broke her sister's sunglasses, and confirmed all her worst suspicions about people from small towns who drove beige Cadillacs.
  8. IT WAS A KNOCKOUT BLOW - a punch so overwhelming that I didn't get back on my feet for fourteen years.
  9. ON A GRAY, FOGGY MORNING, THEY CAME, rising on the cold north winds from the icy peaks, sweeping across the timberland into the gray, misty valleys of the Black Forest... baby sounds!
  10. The building was on fire, and it wasn't my fault.
What did I learn? I learned that sometimes a single sentence tells you nothing, like when it was dialogue (#2). I've learned that some folks decide to go all caps for the first several words of the opening sentence. I learned that at least in a few of the examples above, the book as a whole had its tone nicely indicated by the opening line (#'s 3,4 & 10). And I learned that at least in one particular case, a great first line leads to a rather shitty novel (#6).

I have a suspicion that the more established the writer, the less emphasis they put into their opening moments of the novel. I'm sure there are numerous examples of new and established authors that show both types of openings so I doubt anything will ever be concrete. Which of course is great, because that means I can't be proven wrong.

Regardless, I do like powerful beginnings. 


Rusty Webb said...

1. Justin Cronin, The Passage.
2. Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl.
3. J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.
4. Greg Egan, Schild's Ladder
5. Stephen Baxter, Ring
6. Stephen King, The Gunslinger
7. Jennifer Crusie, Welcome to Temptation
8. Henri Charriere, Papillon
9. Ralph Helfer, Modoc
10. Jim Butcher, Blood Rites

Hart Johnson said...

I think the all caps are a publisher thing... I see it, but don't think it is an author decision. And I have a habit of starting with dialog, but you're right--it tells you NOTHING.

I think I read like you do... first sentence can't turn me off unless it is half a page. First paragraph and page tell me the writing style and prime me to like or not... but I will read half a dozen before I decide I'm 'not hooked' if the earlier hasn't (unless there is a half page first sentence--then if better be an ORGY of fabulous. Working that hard has to have frequent payoff)

These were good though--several had me in a sentence, which is impressive. Always a GOAL, so I can see why agents look for it.

Rusty Webb said...

Yea, I assumed it was a publisher's decision to do all caps to begin a novel - or chapter for that matter - but to riff off of a writer's philosophy I've heard too many times to count:

Don't let facts get in the way of a good story.

I almost always start off with dialog too - followed of course by several pages of exposition - I'm always looking for things to do better. Just something else to add to my list.
As always. Thanks for the comment.