Friday, May 4, 2012

It Was A Dark and Stormy Night: Evolution of a First Sentence

There is a chance that I've spent as long writing the first sentence of my novel as I've spent on the rest of the sentences put together. That first sentence is crucial. If an editor doesn't like it...chances are they aren't going to read to your next sentence, which just happens to be brilliant and sparkly and memorable.

You'd think, with all of that polishing, my first sentence would shine brighter than the rest of the book, but it doesn't. It's still just a sentence. I've come to accept that though. Not every book can start with a sentence mankind will never forget. Even Harry Potter's first sentence was pretty unimpressive.

A Short History of My First Sentence

Looking through all the drafts I have saved, you can see the evolution of my whole novel through this first sentence. You can also see the evolution of my writing, which I hope will be heartening for some of you, and not just hilarious.

The sunlight was slanting brightly through the trees when I looked up.  

Wow. I'd forgotten that I began my novel in first person--a tribute to Twilight, I'm sure. When I realized how limiting first person could be, I switched to third. Never underestimate how difficult it is to clean up a switch in point of view like that. It's Gulf of Mexico big, and took months, plus a lot of help from my sister Mindy, to fix.

That sentence isn't terrible. However, the finished novel begins a whole year earlier than this scene, which is now the beginning of chapter two, and does not contain that particular sentence at all.

Jenny bolted out the door and ran down the road the moment Lisa arrived to replace her. 

At some point, I learned the following rule: Begin with action.  This is my misguided attempt to follow that rule.  It stinks. Unfortunately,  this was the first sentence for quite a long time, and probably made dozens of good-natured readers shake their heads in despair. Luckily one of them called me on it, and the sentence changed to :

One of the children had drawn a giant rainbow on the wall as a goodbye present for Jenny.

And then:

When one of the children drew a giant rainbow on the wall as a goodbye present for Jenny, she gave him a hug and told him she loved it. 

This scene is also in chapter two now.  I knew I wasn't starting in the right place, so for a while I groped around, searching for the right starting spot:

The whole world was on fire with the news that Prince Rillion had been allowed home from his long exile, but Jenny hardly noticed.

Not a bad sentence, all by itself. It is in the gray area, point of view wise, but the real issue is that Prince Rillion is the villain in THE SEQUEL to this book, and isn't even IN this book. This may explain why:
Arram sighed and rolled his eyes at his best friend, Charles. 

No. I didn't really decide to start the book like that, did I? Come on, Arram. Be a man.

“Why are there humans in my formal dining room?”  

Oh my gosh! This was by far the most fun draft for me to open. This is backstory. WAY back, and it might or might not show up in the sequel. I can't believe I considered putting it into this book.

Finally, I found my novel's true starting place. That's when the real tinkering began:

Scott and Jenny waited for Philip as long as they dared.

Jenny hadn’t been able to find Philip anywhere.

Philip was late.

And finally...

It wasn't like Philip to be late, but of course, on this day, of all days, he was.

I like this sentence because it's got a hint of my voice in it.  Voice is still a piece of writing that I struggle to understand, but this feels voice-ier than almost any of the other sentences.

I also like it because it conveys a sense of mystery, which is something a good first sentence should do.  Whether or not they care, readers are left with at least two questions. First of all, if it isn't like Philip to be late, then where is he? And second, what makes THIS day more important than the other days? Hopefully it's enough to make a reader move on to the next sentence.  

Some great links:

Here is a great blog post about tips for making your first sentence shine.

If you are writing some form of speculative fiction, then the members of Hatrack can also be a wonderful resource.

Examples from books I love:

Notice how each of these first sentences leaves you with an unanswered question:

Lark by Sally Watson:

The man in sober Puritan dress paused and glanced behind him, for he thought he had heard a sound that was neither squirrel nor bird.

Bloomability by Sharon Creech:

In my first life, I lived with my mother, and my older brother and sister, Crick and Stella, and with my father when he wasn't on the road.

Book of a Thousand Days by: Shannon Hale

My lady and I are being shut up in a tower for seven years.

Half-Magic by: Edward Eager

It began one day in summer about thirty years ago, and it happened to four children.

A Wrinkle In Time by: Madeline L'Engle

It was a dark and stormy night.

OK. Maybe that last one doesn't leave you with any unanswered questions. However, I LOVED that sentence when I was a child (right up there with "Last night I dreamed I went to Manderly again.")  I remember wishing I could come up with something so simple yet beautiful. What a shock to grow up and find out it is something of a purple-prosy joke. It was first written by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1830, and has been used many times since, like here:

Good Omens by: Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman:

It wasn't a dark and stormy night. It should have been, but there's the weather for you. For every mad scientist who's had a convenient thunderstorm just on the night his Great Work is complete and lying on the slab, there have been dozens who've sat around aimlessly under the peaceful stars while Igor clocks up the overtime.

And here:

There is also a video of Snoopy's creative process. It's pretty funny, but the only version I could find was not  high quality. It's here, and the first 45 seconds are especially applicable to this blog post.

What's your favorite first sentence? And more importantly, what makes it so great?


  1. How fun!

    I think one of the most beloved first sentences, and one that completely sums up the rest of the book has got to be:

    'It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.' - Pride and Prejudice

    Looking over my other favs, though, I'm suprised to find how mundane many are. Here are two I liked, but they are actually the first two sentences.

    'I didn't know how long I had been in the king's prison. The days were all the same except that as each one passed, I was dirtier than before.' - The Thief

    '"I've watched through his eyes, I've listened through his ears, and I tell you he's the one. Or at least as close as we're going to get."' - Ender's Game

    Great post!

  2. I love watching the evolution of your first sentence. I think your last one is a good one.

    I think it is important to have a first sentence that makes the readers ask questions, just make sure that the readers are asking the right question. I've critiqued a few stories that had an awesome first sentence hook, but it didn't fit the story. I think it is more important for the beginning to fit the story than hook the reader.

    You mentioned my favorite first line. "Last night I dreamed I went to Manderely again." I loved that book, and that line really sets the tone for the whole novel.

    Great post, as always. :)

  3. There were so many things I wanted to talk about but didn't have room, and Susan and MaryAnn mentioned two of them! First of all, I couldn't believe I wrote a post about first lines without mentioning Pride and Prejudice (and A Tale of Two Cities).

    And second, I agree with MaryAnn about making sure that your beginning fits your story. Another thing that drives me crazy is the way so many of the current books start in a super-exciting moment and then backtrack to where the story should have started. It's the fall-out from too many authors trying to hook the reader (agent? editor?) with action right off the bat.

  4. Of course, if anyone disagrees with me on that point, I'd love to hear your reasoning.

  5. I got burned out on trying to perfect my first thirteen. I never even tried tackling my first sentence. Yet, I might get back into it that idea that the first sentence has a "question" to it sounds like a tent peg going in. I finally wrote an opening (pure inspiration, no effort) and I though it was great, but looking at it (expanding it liberally to include the first three sentences), it has that question and I think that's why its great.

    Oh and it definitely needs to fit. I'd rather have a poor hook than a theatrical one that "tricks" you into being interested.

    1. I'm glad if I helped a tent peg go in! That's a great feeling.

  6. I agree. I don't like it when an author sets the story up one way and spends the next fifty pages backtracking to show how they got there.

    One of my favorites is from Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. She tells the reader exactly what to expect from her book with the very first sentence.

    "In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three."

    It establishes not only the genre of the book, but the main character's biggest obstacle: breaking out of fairy tale stereotypes to become her own hero.

  7. My favorite first line is from Peter Pan, "All children, except one, grow up." J.M. Barrie.


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