First sentences

Here’s an (old) post on Medium by Anna Paradox: What I learned from studying first sentences

I thought I knew a lot about first sentences. It turns out that they are still surprising me.

At her blog:

Of these works, the first sentence that interested me most came from A Closed and Common Orbit, book two of the Wayfarers series:

Lovelace had been in a body for twenty-eight minutes, and it still felt every bit as wrong as it had the second she woke up in it.”

There’s a lot to unpack here. We have a character, Lovelace. She has a problem – something feels very wrong. Character plus problem is a first sentence formula that can fit any genre. 

Lovelace’s specific problem, however, takes up the rest of the sentence, and shows us that the world is not our own. 

Scroll down from there to read Anna’s commentary about this and many other first sentences, including the first sentence of Tuyo.

Now that I’m once again thinking of first sentences, and therefore novel openings, as sporadically happens, here’s the opening of a book I haven’t read for a long time: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson:

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.” 

That’s just about the most atmospheric opening imaginable. Also, you couldn’t pay me enough to go into that house. Or, I mean, you could, but it would have to be a pretty significant sum.

Speaking of houses:

When the Moon rose in the Third Northern Hall I went to the Ninth Vestibule to witness the joining of three Tides. This is something that happens only once every eight years. The Ninth Vestibule is remarkable for the three great Staircases it contains. Its Walls are lined with marble Statues, hundreds upon hundreds of them, Tier upon Tier, riding into the distant heights.

Lovely! Happy to visit, wouldn’t want to be stuck there.

Here’s the first opening of the book I’m reading now: Hild, which I’m re-reading very slowly in anticipation of finally getting to read Menewood, which just dropped today.

The child’s world changed late one afternoon, though she didn’t know it. Sh lay at the edge of hte hazel coppice, one cheek pressed ot the moss that smelt of worm cast and the last of the sun, listening: to the wind in the elms, rushing away from the day, to the jackdaws changing their calls from “Outward! Outward!” to “Home now! Home!,” to the rustle of the last frightened shrews scuttling under the layers of leaf fall before the owls began their hunt.

If you’ve read a particularly great novel recently, what was the first sentence? Did it offer promise that the book fulfilled?

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9 thoughts on “First sentences”

  1. The book that I’ve most liked recently is The Will of the Many by James Islington. Great premise, a little like Red Rising but not as brutal. The first sentence doesn’t come close to illuminating the rest of the book tho:
    I am dangling, and it is only my father’s blood slicked grip around my wrist that stops me from falling.

  2. Recent read, Thornhedge by T Kingfisher. It begins “In the early days, the wall of thorns had been distressingly obvious.” That is setting the reader in fairy tale territory with a twist. Why does it matter if the thorns are obvious, and why is it distressing?

    Rereading a few Green Man books by Juliet E McKenna ahead of the release of the next one later this month. The Green Man’s Gift, most recent previous book, begins “I’m useless at telling lies.” For ongoing series readers, it’s a reminder of Dan’s character and personality, and his heritage. His mom is a dryad and he inherited the truthfulness from her. Plus, makes you wonder why this matters at the moment.

    Earlier this year, I really liked The Keeper’s Six by Kate Elliott. You have to go beyond the first sentence on this one; it takes several short sentences/paragraphs to build to the hook.
    The call came at night.
    Esther fumbled for the phone lying on the side table. Still barely conscious, she stuck it to her ear.
    “Hello!” What time was it?
    Static hissed and whistled.
    “Mom, I need your help.”

  3. The second book of the Ashtown Burials series, The Drowned Vault by N.D. Wilson:
    “There is only one Beginning. There is only one place and one moment where the world, life, and time itself began. There is only one Story. It began in the dark. It has many middles and many ends. You and I could chase it for lifetimes and only make it longer by our living. It is too sprawling for these pages and too big for this mouth. We begin in a middle. We trace a smaller arc.”

    Also, from the prologue of the third book, Empire of Bones, and the first chapter:
    “On a wind-battered hillside, above a lifeless house, beyond the jagged battle line where sandstone cliffs held back the gray churning sea, there was a hole in the ground six feet deep.”
    “People wear places like they wear shoes.”

  4. The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone. She was very old, though she did not know it, and she was no longer the careless colour of sea foam but rather the colour of snow falling on a moonlit night. But her eyes were still clear and unwearied, and she still moved like a shadow on the sea.

    – The Last Unicorn, Peter S. Beagle. One of the most beautiful openings of a book that I’ve encountered. And yes, it lived up to it; I cried at bits of this book because it was just so lovely. But it also subverted it by not being a *straight* fairytale; it’s actually a SPOOF at times… but never enough to break the fairytale spell.

    First the colours.
    Then the humans.
    That’s usually how I see things.
    Or, at least, how I try.

    Here is a small fact:
    You are going to die.

    – The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. And again yes – it lived up to the sidelong, distracted, blinding ache of pain that was present throughout the entire prologue. I loved the narrative voice. For THIS book of Zusak’s, it was perfect. (For everything else of his I’ve tried, it doesn’t work at all. The joy of having one of your all-time favourite books written by an author who’s nowhere near your top ten… *sigh*)

    I know I’m not an ordinary ten-year-old kid. I mean, sure, I do ordinary things. I eat ice cream. I ride my bike. I play ball. I have an Xbox. Stuff like that makes me ordinary. I guess. And I feel ordinary. Inside. But I know ordinary kids don’t make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds. I know ordinary kids don’t get stared at wherever they go…[]… My name is August, by the way. I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.

    – Wonder by R.J. Palacio. This book has several different first-person narrators, some more well realised than others. But I was hooked from that paragraph, and it did live up to what I was expecting. Mostly.

  5. You know what other one I thought of just now?
    “So there I was, tied to an altar made from outdated encyclopedias, about to get sacrificed to the dark powers by a cult of evil Librarians.”
    – Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians, by Brandon Sanderson.
    Did I read this recently? No. But it gives a pretty good feel for the absolute madness that ensues. It is certainly memorable. And it’s fun.

  6. Coming to this really late, but my favourite opening line of all time comes from THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO by Patrick Ness (which remains one of my desert island books).

    —The first thing you learn when your dog begins to speak is that he ent got much to say.


  7. Manda, the title is great, the first line is great, and why have I never read this book? Downloading a sample now.

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