First sentences: The World In a Grain of Sand

From PJ Parrish at Kill Zone Blog: Finding An Opening Line Is Like Seeing
The World In a Grain of Sand

… the first sentence is important. Don’t we preach that all the time here at TKZ? A great opening line is a promise you make to your reader that they are in for something special, a hell of a ride. No pressure, right?

One of my writing heroes, Joyce Carol Oates, says “The first sentence can’t be written until the last sentence is written.” That is not some Buddha-esque mumbo-jumbo. Oates is saying that a great opening line comes from you the writer having a complete understanding of what your book is about at its soul.  And usually that is something you discover not at the first step but during the journey.

The most interesting part of this post: the list of “qualities of a first line.”

–It can be vivid or suprising.

–It can be funny.

–It can presage something bad to come.

–It can introduce the voice of the protagonist.

–It can be a simple statement of fact.

–It can set the mood.

–It can establish the theme.

–It can be beautiful.

Parrish provides various examples for the above categories. They’re good examples; click through and take a look if you like. I’d like to complicate the question of first sentences in several ways:

First, I think lots and lots of opening sentences do more than one of those things. Here’s one everyone will recognize:

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.

Just plain beautiful, sets the mood, establishes the theme.

Second, it’s pretty obvious that other first lines, perfectly good and successful ones, don’t do any of the above. Here’s the first line of Georgette Heyer’s A Civil Contract:

“The library at Fontley Priory, like most of the principal apartments in the sprawling building, looked to the south-east, commanding a prospect of informal gardens and a plantation of poplars, which acted as a wind-break and screened from view the monotony of the fen beyond.”

This is a case where the first line sets the scene. I wouldn’t say this is a statement of fact. I wouldn’t say it’s an example of particularly beautiful writing either. It’s not setting the mood — there’s no mood yet. Setting the scene is different from any of those, so this is an additional type of job a first sentence can do.

Third, here’s another first sentence that sets the scene. In this case, it also suggests the mood, or we might say the tone, or style. This might be a different category of first sentence or maybe not; it depends on whether you think “mood” is the same thing as “tone.” Anyway, take a look:

Morning light the sulphur colour of the mine dumps seeps across Johannesburg’s skyline and sears thorugh my window. 

This sentence immediately — I mean instantly, without needing to read the second sentence — suggests that the novel is going to be bleak, probably gritty, possibly nihilistic in tone. This is Zoo City by Lauren Beukes and, in fact, I DNFed it after the first couple of chapters because it was a lot too gritty and grim.

Fourth, How about this entirely different first sentence:

I had a sister once.

What does that do? It is vivid and surprising, but not immediately. It sets the mood, but not instantly. I think it takes just that tiny bit of a pause to process this sentence and realize what it means. This is from a dark fantasy novel called Bones of Faerie by Janni Lee Simner. Is this the same kind of category as the above, or is a kind of slow-motion creepiness something different?

Fifth, some sentences absolutely cannot be read alone. The job they’re doing is completely lost unless you consider the sum of several sentences in combination. Here’s an opening sentence that’s just a pure statement of fact, and perfectly boring:

It was snowing again.

You have to read that one in combination with the next few sentences to get a feel for the writing:

It was snowing again. Gentle six-pointed flakes from a picture book, settling on her jacket sleeve. The mountain air prickled with ice and the savor of pine resin. 

Including fragments in the first paragraph is generally the mark of either a great stylist or a real amateur. In this case, it’s the former: this is from The Silent Land by Graham Joyce, which I mentioned a couple of days ago when thinking about plot twists. Anyway, this is a way of noting that the first sentence is sometimes entirely unimportant because it’s not supposed to stand by itself, it’s supposed to be read as part of the first paragraph.

Here’s the entire first paragraph:

It was snowing again. Gentle six-pointed flakes from a picture book, settling on her jacket sleeve. The mountain air prickled with ice and the savor of pine resin. Zoe pulled the air into her lungs, feeling the cracking cold of it before letting go. And when the mountain peak seemed to nod and sigh back at her, she almost thought she could die in that place, and happily.

Wow! First, that’s a fine paragraph, beautiful writing, but also, once you’ve read the book and know where it’s actually going . . . wow. Have any of you read this one? Because I think you have to read this paragraph again after finishing the book to really appreciate it.

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4 thoughts on “First sentences: The World In a Grain of Sand”

  1. MORGON OF HED met the High One’s harpist one autumn day when the trade-ships docked at Tol for the season’s exchange of goods.
    When you’ve read the whole and know where that meeting leads, that is a heavily freighted line.

    Then there’s the grabber, such as Jo Walton’s from King’s Name The first I knew of the civil war was when my sister Aurien poisoned me. But while looking for that, I noticed that there’s a faux-scholar introduction, and a poem before the first line of the first chapter. Where does that sort of front matter fit in this dicussion?

    Most aren’t grabbers or obviously heavily weighted and I honestly don’t think they need to be. It’s great if they are, but don’t think a writer needs to obsess over it.

  2. I was the youngest of three daughters. Our literal-minded mother named us Grace, Hope, and Honour, but few people except perhaps the minister who had baptized all three of us remembered my given name.

  3. There was once a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself — not just sometimes, but always.

  4. Lots of good ones here!

    My favorite of my own first lines is: There were more than twenty-four hundred people in the village of Tikiy-up-the-Mountain, but only one of them was alive.

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