Start your writers' conference learning now with a series of guest blog posts from some of the conference faculty. This guest post comes from Joyce Wycoff, conference program guide, author of a young adult fantasy novella, Sarana’s Gift and a specialty journal, Gratitude Miracles, the 5-minute journal that could change everything!
Don’t forget to enter the First Sentence Contest! (Earlybird Registrants only)
Common wisdom says you only have one chance to make a great first impression. However, that impression will differ depending on the recipient. Just as this door, for some people, might say, "Come on in, there's a party going on." For others, it might say, "Beware, there's trouble here, for sure."
For a book, the first impression means the first sentence, the first page. That brief introduction needs to telegraph something about the book, the story, the characters, something that gives the reader a sense of what's coming next. Sounds easy but seldom is.
How do you write a first sentence that creates that instant chemistry that says to the reader, "Read me! Read me now!"?
Your first sentence sets the stage. It is you whispering to the reader, "Come here, listen, I have a story to tell you." It piques interest, introduces tone and voice, creates mystery, pulls you into the next line, the next paragraph, the next page ... when it's done well.Here are 25 of the 100 best first lines offered by American Book Review followed by seven specific principles offered in a Writers' Digest article.
25 of the 100 Best First Lines from Novels from American Book Review:
1. Call me Ishmael. —Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)
2. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. —Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)
3. A screaming comes across the sky. —Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow (1973)
4. Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. —Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967; trans. Gregory Rabassa)
5. Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. —Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)
6. Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. —Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877; trans. Constance Garnett)
7. riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs. —James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (1939)
8. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. —George Orwell, 1984 (1949)
9. 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. —Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
10. I am an invisible man. —Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)
11. The Miss Lonelyhearts of the New York Post-Dispatch (Are you in trouble?—Do-you-need-advice?—Write-to-Miss-Lonelyhearts-and-she-will-help-you) sat at his desk and stared at a piece of white cardboard. —Nathanael West, Miss Lonelyhearts (1933)
12. You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter. —Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885)
13. Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested. —Franz Kafka, The Trial (1925; trans. Breon Mitchell)
14. You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. —Italo Calvino, If on a winter's night a traveler (1979; trans. William Weaver)
15. The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. —Samuel Beckett, Murphy (1938)
16. If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. —J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
17. Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo. —James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)
18. This is the saddest story I have ever heard. —Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier (1915)
19. I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly considered how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost:—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,—I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that, in which the reader is likely to see me. —Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy (1759–1767)
20. Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. —Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850)
21. Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. —James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)
22. It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. —Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)
23. One summer afternoon Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary. —Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)
24. It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. —Paul Auster, City of Glass (1985)
25. Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. —William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (1929)
Brian Klems in Writers' Digest offers some clues:
1. A statement of eternal principle.
This technique is a staple of European classics. Think of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”) and Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”). Of course, the story or novel you write must confirm the proposed principle. If it turned out that Mr. Darcy didn’t want to wed, or that Anna was happily married, these openings would certainly leave readers wanting. (An excellent contemporary example is from Jane Hamilton’s The Book of Ruth: “What it begins with, I know finally, is the kernel of meanness in people’s hearts. …”)
2. A statement of simple fact.
The entire weight of the narrative can sometimes be conveyed in a single statement. Think of, “I had a farm in Africa” (Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa) or, “It was a pleasure to burn” (Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451) or, “I am an invisible man” (Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man). No gimmicks. No fireworks. Just—as Mr. Gradgrind demands in the opening line of Charles Dickens’ Hard Times—the facts.
3. A statement of paired facts.
In many cases, two facts combined are more powerful than either one on its own. The paradigmatic example is the opening line of Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter: “In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.” A town with two mutes is not necessarily compelling, nor are two inseparable men. But a town with two inseparable mutes? Now that locks in our interest.
4. A statement of simple fact laced with significance.
Because readers don’t read backward, it’s possible to bury a key piece of a story in an opening so that, by the time it becomes relevant, the reader has forgotten it. Agatha Christie mysteries do this often. The key to solving the crime in Murder on the Orient Express, for example, is embedded innocuously in the opening sentence. So is the key to the heroine’s psyche in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, the opening of which explains, “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful. …”
5. A statement to introduce voice.
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” Vladimir Nabokov’s celebrated opening is not designed to convey characterization or plot, though both are present, so much as to introduce his distinctive style. Anthony Burgess opens A Clockwork Orange (“What’s it going to be then, eh?”) without any plot, characterization or setting at all—merely the ominous voice that will accompany the reader through the text. Stories that begin with a highly unusual voice often withhold other craft elements for a few sentences—a reasonable choice, as the reader may need to adjust to a new form of language before being able to absorb much in the way of content.
6. A statement to establish mood.
Contextual information not directly related to the story can often color our understanding of the coming narrative. Take Sylvia Plath’s opening to The Bell Jar: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” While the Rosenberg execution has nothing to do with the content of the narrative, it sets an ominous tone for what follows.
7. A statement that serves as a frame.
Sometimes, the best way to begin a story is to announce that you’re about to tell a story. English storytellers have been doing this since at least the first recorded use of the phrase “Once upon a time” in the 14th century. Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn starts off this way, as does J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. After all, a brilliant opening can be as straightforward as: “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler …” (which really does start exactly that way).