One of the most important parts of a story, whether it’s a novel or a short, is the first sentence.
The first sentence has a big job to do, and a most important one. Basically, its job is to make the reader read the first paragraph.
And that’s important because the first paragraph’s job is to make the reader read the second.
And, by extrapolation, the first page’s job is to make the reader turn to the second. Once they have done that, the writer has them.
So that first sentence is vital. I’m an English teacher, among other things and I’ve read thousands of essays and stories and assignments from my students over the years. And usually I can tell from the first sentence what the rest of the piece is going to be like. If it’s a good one, I can relax into it and maybe even enjoy the read. If it’s a bad one I reach for a glass of red wine (every teacher’s panacea at mark time) and resign myself to a mediocre effort.
The late great children’s author Madeleine L’Engle started her novel A Wrinkle in Time with the sentence ‘It was a dark and stormy night.’ That is usually the sentence used as an example of how not to start a story. Which is why the brave Ms L’Engle used it, I guess. She went on to write a very successful series of novels from that bold opening.
So let’s have a look at some great opening lines of great stories, and try to work out just why they hit the mark the way they do.
First up, one of my favourites, from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948):
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
That phrase “the clocks were striking thirteen” is what makes this a wonderful sentence. Of course, common sense tells us clocks that strike on the hour (that is, sound out a series of chimes, one for each hour) are not twenty-four hour clocks, so none of them normally strike thirteen. The use of that word indicates there is something unusual about these clocks, and that draws the reader in. He or she wants to know not just why the clocks are striking thirteen, but how. Orwell arouses our curiosity in a subtle way and does what every good writer should do: make the reader ask questions. It’s by reading the book that the reader will find the answers.
Another example, from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit:
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.
Tolkien did a similar thing to Orwell. He introduced a word that would immediately ask a question. What is a hobbit? We want to know, so we keep reading. In this case, Tolkien almost immediately answers the question and gives us quite a long description of his invented race. But it works, because after that description he dives straight into the story and vindicates our newfound knowledge by putting his hobbit into a situation that demonstrates not only the racial tendencies of hobbits but the ways in which his particular hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, is different.
Another good line, for different reasons, from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre:
There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-of-door exercise was now out of the question.
Here the author plunges us straight in. We meet at least two people: the narrator and Mrs Reed, and learn a bit about the habits of each. Mrs Reed is particular about when she dines; the narrator seems to dislike the outdoors and finds raw winter weather uncomfortable.
It is a grammatically perfect way of drawing us into the writer’s world. We know it’s Charlotte Bronte, of course, so we can anticipate the sort of story we’re in for. But here we have no “faffing about” that other writer’s of her time might have indulged in. We are into the story.
Here’s an opening from a more modern book, Ben Elton’s Past Mortem:
The victim died as he had lived.
Only more so.
Three short paragraphs that set up a situation that has us wanting to know more. Is this a murder? And what was it that made the victim’s life cruel? The fact that each paragraph contains a single short sentence or sentence fragment rams home to us the suddenness of the death and the impact of it. It turns out to be a gruesome murder and Elton cuts no corners in getting us straight to it. It’s up there with Charles Dickins’s wonderful opening to A Christmas Carol: ‘Marley was dead, to begin with.’
The importance of killer opening lines can’t be stressed too much. They have to be strong and intriguing, they must raise questions in the reader’s mind, and they must immediately reflect the style and nature of the story to come. Sometimes it may well be that the first sentence is the last one to be written.