Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Killer First Sentences

by Pat Stoltey

First sentences are hard. Agents and editors give all kinds of conflicting advice on panels and in workshops, on their websites or in books. One says a novel should never open with dialogue, another says she loves a book to jump into dialogue from the get-go. A writing manual tells us the first sentence should be the hook. An agent insists we should never open a book with the weather. In a conference workshop, a well-known editor advises writers that the opening sentence should never be in the form, "Blank did blank."

What's an author to do? Here's what these authors chose for their first lines:

"Several miles into his journey, Jack St. Bride decided to give up his former life."
.....Jodi Picoult, Salem Falls (2001)

"When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily."
.....Alice Sebold, The Almost Moon (2007)

"Call me Snake."
.....Marilyn Victor and Michael Allan Mallory, Death Roll (2007)

"Something caused men to stare at Nealie Bent, although just what it was that made them do so wasn't clear."
.....Sandra Dallas, The Bride's House (2011)

"Three days before her death, my mother told me--these weren't her last words, but they were pretty close--that my brother was still alive."
.....Harlan Coben, Gone for Good (2002)

"When this nameless piece a' shit tore off Linda Lobo's G-string instead of sticking money in it like he was supposed to, Texas Jack Carmine went crazy-over-the-edge and hit him with a pool cue."
.....Robert James Waller, Border Music (1993)

"I've never been what you might call an 'overachiever' but at age twenty-five I've already done the worst thing any human being can possible do."
.....Chris Grabenstein, Whack A Mole (2007)

Can a great first sentence convince you to buy a book (or check it out of the library)?


Margot Kinberg said...

Pat - What an interesting question! First lines really can grab you, and although they don't "make or break" a book for me, they are important. Here is my all-time favourite first line, taken from Ruth Rendell's A Judgement in Stone:
Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.

M.J. Fifield said...

I love the opening lines of The Almost Moon and Whack A Mole. I haven't read them but I just might now.

That said, I do agree with Margot, that first lines don't make or break a book for me.

GigglesandGuns said...

Definitely -- but I have to get past the cover first. I confess unless a book is suggested to me a cover makes me pick it up first.

D. U. Okonkwo said...

a great first sentence will definitely make me continue reading. I have to get to the end of the first page and still want to read more to buy it.

Terry Odell said...

I'll look at the blurb and if that sounds interesting, I'll look at the first page. A first line is good, but I wouldn't buy a book based on that small a sample.

Terry's Place
Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

Elspeth Antonelli said...

I'm never going to make a decision based on a first sentence. It is interesting, however, how much pressure is placed on writers to make that first sentence a killer.

Mason Canyon said...

It usually takes more than the first sentence to get me to buy a book, but having said that I may change. The line from THE ALMOST MOON grabs your attention and you want to know the answer to so many questions at once.

Thoughts in Progress
Freelance Editing By Mason

Patricia Stoltey said...

I'm kind of partial to Waller's first sentence myself. I'm going to have to move that book up on reading list.

Dean K Miller said...

The first sentence is important, as it's the greeting from the book to the reader. It's always important how you introduce yourself.

(Note: it took 15 minutes to come up with the first sentence of this response...I was nervous and didn't want to make a bad first impression...I know, too late! ;-}

Janet Fogg said...

I just checked five of my favorite novels, and I'd say the first sentences were all average, though the first paragraphs grabbed me. I do agonize over my own opening words, though. Makes me think...

Good post! Thanks, Pat!

John Paul McKinney said...

Waller's may be the most explicit, but they're all teasers of a sort, with the promise of more excitement to come. Like Dicken's.
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times;"
Thanks for the interesting post.

Karen Duvall said...

I must have rewritten the first sentence of my Luna book 50 times. Or more.

To this day my favorite first line starts of Laurell K. Hamilton's Guilty Pleasures. Well, actually it's 2 sentences, but they have to go together to get the full effect: "Willie McCoy had been a jerk before he died. His being dead didn't change that."