Here’s a little quiz. See how many book titles you can identify from their first sentences.
1) “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charms as the Tarleton twins were.” 2) “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.” 3) “You don’t know me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter.” 4) “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days without taking a fish.” 5) “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” 6) “Marley was dead: to begin with.”
Award yourself a nice prize if you got at least 5 of them correct (answers at the bottom) and an even nicer one if you get either of these: 7) “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” 8) “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
We’re on the honor system, so no cheating. Stay off the internet.
First sentences have only one job: to make the reader read the second sentence. It’s the hook that will either snag readers and reel them in or lose them at the outset; sometimes it’s the single litmus test that will either make them head for the checkout counter at Barnes & Noble or slap the book back on the shelf and move on to more interesting stuff. In short, the opening batch of words is pay dirt or failure. So, believe me, smart writers choose those words mighty carefully.
First sentences are first impressions. And like other first impressions they can sometimes be misleading. Here’s the very first sentence of the very first novel written by John Steinbeck (Cup of Gold, published in 1929): “All afternoon the wind sifted out of the black Welsh glens, crying notice that winter was come sliding down over the world from the pole; and riverward there was a faint moaning of new ice.”
It’s a winner, filled with sensory imagery that drops the reader right into a setting that can be seen, heard, smelled and felt. Unfortunately the thousands of sentences that come after it make for something of a train wreck of a novel, so bad that Steinbeck – who would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature for some of the finest books in world literature – probably wished he had skipped that one altogether and moved on to his second effort, The Pastures of Heaven.
Of course, there are lots of good books that don’t start with wonderful, inviting first lines. One of my favorite novels, Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, doesn’t offer much in the way of an opener: “An hour before sunset, on the evening of a day in the beginning of October, 1815, a man traveling afoot entered the little town of D______.” Come on, Victor, at least give us the name of the town. I’ve always wondered how a fellow who wrote hundreds of thousands of perfect sentences in his novels couldn’t come up with a better one to launch his masterpiece.
Years ago I wrote a first-class first sentence for a novel or a short story. The problem is I can’t seem to come up with a plotline to follow it. Here it is: “He was a big man, and he would be hard to kill.” It’s no “Call me Ishmael”, but you have to admit it’s more intriguing than the first line of Les Miserables.
So, if you’re a writer pay particular attention to your first sentences. They can either be an invitation to your readers to come along for the ride or sufficiently lackluster to make them keep looking.
Here are the answers to the quiz. 1) Gone with the Wind 2) To Kill a Mockingbird” 3) Huckleberry Finn 4) The Old Man and the Sea 5) Rebecca 6) A Christmas Carol 7) Anna Karenina 8) 1984.
If you got them all correct, buy yourself a good book. One with a good first sentence.
I didn’t put what is possibly the most famous opening line on the quiz, from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
That, my friend, will almost certainly describe 2017, just as it has all the years preceding it.
[Parts of this were first appeared as a newspaper column in 2013]