The first sentence of a story is probably the most difficult to write. It has so much hanging on it. It needs to hook the reader, draw them in, encourage them to buy the book. It needs to set up the story, provide intrigue and raise questions. It can’t be too long; to short, and it won’t reel you in.
I heard Tim Key's Suspended Sentence yesterday on Radio 4 which prompted these thoughts. The comedian and poet was postulating writing his first novel and knew he had to start with the opening line (an error in novel-writing in my opinion, as that is the sentence that is most likely to change a myriad number of times). It was all a little tongue in cheek, but his discussions with experts show how difficult writing this opening sentence can be. You can listen to the programme yourself here.
I had previously learnt one rule about first sentences: Don’t start by talking about the weather. I suspect that is a good rule for beginning any conversation with a stranger (although being British the weather is something I am well-trained in talking about). The infamous start “It was a dark and stormy night …” from the 1830 novel Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton has precluded any of us from ever touching on the weather again. There is a competition named after him for writing the ‘opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels’ with thousands of entrants every year.
Hopefully, not mine. Here is the first line of my book In the shade of the Mulberry Tree:
We take a sharp left-turn through a gap in the hedge, avoid the ditch, and pull up in front of a wall.
At least I’ve not mentioned the weather. Could it have the same impact as these, more famous, openers?
1 It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
2 It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…
3 Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.
4 All children, except one, grow up.
5 Roger, aged seven, and no longer the youngest of the family, ran in wide zigzags, to and fro, across the steep field that sloped up from the lake to Holly Howe, the farm where they were staying for part of the summer holidays.
I can begin to grasp why these lines work. I am already asking questions, picturing the scene, wondering why this statement is important to the rest of the book.
Is a rich man in need of a wife?
How can it be both best and worst of times?
I can picture Mrs Dursley – prima and proper – saying, ‘Thank you very much’ in her clipped Southern English tones.
Which child didn’t grow up (and why)?
And Roger? Well, I’m running with him, free from the constraints of everyday life and loving my childhood holidays.
What draws you in to reading a book?
If you wish to have a guess at these first lines, do so in the comments. I promise the answers next week!