1. Fictionfreak
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    Fictionfreak Member

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    That first sentence...

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by Fictionfreak, Feb 17, 2009.

    Hey,

    its been a while since I've been on these forums.

    Anyway, I've been doing some extensive studies on fiction these past few months. I've been dissecting the novel, and trying to identify what makes a great book, a great book.

    One big factor, is a gripping first sentence, that gives the audience enough of a motivation to read through the description and details until they reach the next bit of tension or conflict.

    I figure it will be better if I could get some first hand advice from writers who are more experienced than myself. So, is there anybody who has advice on writing a compelling first line?

    Thanks guys.
     
  2. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    First line, first paragraph, or first page, beginnings are so crucial for grabbing the reader's interest that they probably get more attention than any other comparable piece of text in the entire work. You may rework it several times, and it may well be the last thing you touch up before packaging up the manuscript for the publisher.

    A good opening immediately gets you involved with the character. It need not be the main character; at this point the reader may have no idea who the main character is, or if the opening character has a lasting role in the story. But activity pulls the reader along better than painting a landscape. You can buiild the scenery as you get into te scene, but fix the point of view relative to the character and run the scene from that perspective.

    The other thing that I feel makes a good opening is that it raises more questions for the reader thangives answers. Keep the reader a little off nalance. Not confused, but needing to read ahead to determine exactly what is really happening.
     
  3. Fictionfreak
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    Fictionfreak Member

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    ".. or first page." I never thought of it that way before. But I guess you're right, as long as it gives the story enough of a kickstart. And also, I need to be wary of how many questions I throw at the reader, because I tend to always think that the less questions answered, generates more reader interest. Thanks for putting that ballance concept to mind..

    Do you have any examples you could show me of what are, in your opinion, excellent openings?
     
  4. Munk
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    Munk New Member

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    For great first lines, you can't go past the classics.
    Take Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier for instance 'Last Night, I dreamt i went to Manderlay again' But how can you not finish a book with an opening like that?
     
  5. Xeno
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    Xeno Mad and Bitey Contributor

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    This has always been my achillies heel. No matter how well I've figured out the plot, or even the first scene, I can't write the first sentence!
     
  6. Daedalus
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    Daedalus Active Member

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    There are few areas of novels that face as much scrutiny as opening sentences, and not without reason. If an opening sentence is boring, bland, and cliched, you risk losing your reader immediately. In fact, in that regard, the first chapter of a novel should always be fast-paced, interesting, and leave the reader with a ton of unanswered questions. Because if there is no desire to read on, then your book will never leave the book store.

    Take a look at John Grisham's opening line from The Runaway Jury:

    How can you not read on?

    So, more than any other part of the novel, make sure the first chapter has enough to draw the reader in and not let them go.

    NEVER have a flashback in a first chapter. It will be tossed in the bin without question. You can tell the back-story a few chapters down the line when the reader needs to catch his/her breath.

    Do not use a prologue. Let's face it, they're unnecessary, and in most cases they're only used to show back-story or something from a bygone time, which is essentially a flashback. Besides, it's a well-known fact that a lot of ordinary people skip prologues on the assumption that they're add-ons and not related to the story, which makes them rather obsolete.

    And remember that most readers in a book store only read the first few pages of the first chapter before deciding if they'll purchase the novel. So, for that reason, give them no choice but to buy your book. That is, provided you get it published.
     
  7. Ghosts in Latin
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    Ghosts in Latin Senior Member

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    You know, I've always been a big, big fan of the Pulp Fiction manner of order, where things aren't told chronologically and, instead, fall into place as the story progresses.

    That also makes creating an entertaining first line relatively easy; you can start your novel in the middle of your story.
     
  8. silverfrost
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    silverfrost Member

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    I started writing a new short story today and, of course, had problems with that darn first sentence--even a crappy, temporary first sentence. I agree that it might make the most sense to go back and revise the opening of a piece after you've finished rewriting and editing the rest of it. Coming up with a strong opener is never easy for me, however.
     
  9. NaCl
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    NaCl Contributing Member Contributor

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    Then how do you folks explain the literary acclaim for Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises which is the most boring first eight chapters I think I've ever read?
     
  10. Daedalus
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    Daedalus Active Member

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    Eh, Hemingway's works are what - a hundred years old? More? I don't know; haven't read any of them.

    Things change over time, mate.
     
  11. Ghosts in Latin
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    Ghosts in Latin Senior Member

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    I think that's just one factor that goes to show society's change towards instant gratification and, perhaps, lack of attention span.

    A lot of people do have that, "If I can't tell whether or not the book is good the first few minutes, it's obviously not worth my time." mindest.
     
  12. sorites
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    sorites Senior Member

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    The first line from The Son Also Rises:

    To me, it's not that amazing as a first line, but it's short and definitely enough to get me to the second line, and from there, it picks up imo.

    In the first three sentences, we're introduced to an intriguing character. He's a champion and proud of it, but of a sport he hates. He's a Jew and is at odds with his peers. Boxing is violent, and violence is inherently interesting. I've never read this book, but I'd say this is a good start, even if the first sentence underwhelmed.


    Here's For Whom the Bell Tolls. The Metallica song by the same name has a strong start. How about the novel by Hemingway?

    I like it. It definitely sets the mood and the scenery.

    And The Old Man and the Sea:

    Not super compelling to me.

    Idk, I've never read Hemingway tbh.

    How about The Catcher in the Rye? I have read that and really liked it. The true definition of an anti-hero.

    Now that is one hell of a first line. :D
     
  13. sorites
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    sorites Senior Member

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    I gotta disagree with this. A writer's job is to interest his reader. It is and always has been. Boring = death. The sooner you grab the reader and make him want to keep reading, the better.
     
  14. marina
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    marina Contributing Member Contributor

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    Look at this amazing start. It's from As Simple As Snow by Gregory Galloway:

    And then this first line from Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith:

    Both of these capture the essence of what the stories are about.

    I was going to post the first two lines from Sellevision by Augusten Burroughs, but wasn't sure if anyone would be offended by it. :D
     
  15. Dr. Doctor
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    Dr. Doctor Contributing Member

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    You might have a point with some things, but I think this change toward instant gratification spurred something good in media such as music or movies. A good first sentence/chapter is just great.

    Like The Weatherman by Steve Thayer, in which the first chapter involves a big goddamn TORNADO DESTROYING A CITY. And the book isn't even about tornadoes, really. That's just awesome.
     
  16. Fictionfreak
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    Fictionfreak Member

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    Things have changed. What was once a time, where writers could stall their scenery descriptions, is no more. However, as the world is getting closer, and knowledge and information spreading faster, ther writers ability to improve their writing has also rocketed. So maybe things are just improving, not because of short attention spans, but because, through enough trial and error, man kind has continued to improve on the novel. I don't know the answer to this. It's kind of like, a chicken or the egg scenerio.

    Also, thanks for all of these profound examples of first lines. I especially liked- "The decision to bomb the office of the radical Islamic fundamentalist was reached with relative ease."

    This line is current, relevant, and gives the reader an almost irresistable incentive to go on.

    Thanks guys.

    One of my favorites is personally from, The Ax, by Donald Westlake.

    "I've never actually killed anybody before, murdered another person, snuffed out another human being."
     
  17. Atari
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    Atari Active Member

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    Two things generally get me into a book:

    1. A writing style in general that is easy to understand and pulls you along. Boring, verbose, or information-dumping narrative turns me off immediately.

    The book that has inspired me more than any other is a X-men book starring Wolverine.
    It's one of the gritty, dark stories that heeds not whether it uses expletives or violence.
    The very opening of the book IS a descriptive scene. It describes a snow landscape, forest, and a deer.
    The thing is, it was SO good at describing, it has to be the only book I have ever read where the descriptions themselves have just DRAWN ME IN and pummeled me into submission. It was magnificently inspiring, and I aspire to be that great-- if not greater!

    2. Aside from the extremely rare time when someone writes so well that a description of a deer can draw me in, the second thing is something happening.
    If at the beginning there's comedy or action, entertaining badinage or characters that are enjoyable to be around, then I will be drawn in.

    You see, not only was that scene with the deer well-described, but it was then saved from wolves by Wolverine, who then proceeded to eat the WOLF.
    That's INTERESTING. Most of the rest of the book wasn't really THAT great, but I was committed after reading the introduction.

    So that's me. Number one, I think, outweighs number two, though. You've REALLY gotta have a style of writing that is easily accessible and entertaining.
     
  18. tehuti88
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    tehuti88 Contributing Member

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    I don't know that I've ever read a first SENTENCE that stood so well enough on its own, was so very interesting, that that alone would convince me to keep reading. A first paragraph or page, maybe, but not just one sentence. I'm not saying it can't be done, but I think readers should be given a bit more credit--I'm sure most people do more than browse the very first line before deciding if that's enough to stop reading. Do people stop watching a movie if the very first frame is boring?

    I can't say what makes a great opening paragraph/scene/page because it varies so widely. For me, for example, I don't care for the WHAM BANG ACTION! openings that so many beginning writers are urged to compose. I like beginnings that are interesting in their own way, but not so action packed. Like I said on another writing forum, I'm like a small animal--I like something shiny to catch my interest, not jump out and scare me away. This goes to show you how what makes up a "good beginning" can vary widely.
     
  19. Dr. Doctor
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    Dr. Doctor Contributing Member

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    It takes a good writer to construct a first sentence that will pull the reader in immediately, and I think that's what most of us are talking about. Just the sheer magnitude of some of these first sentences, their impact, etc. Just look at some of the examples posted.
     
  20. Dcoin
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    Dcoin Contributing Member

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    I always write the first sentence once the piece is finished.
     
  21. DvnMrtn
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    DvnMrtn Contributing Member

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    I was just doing my required reading for my creative writing course and I just finished a chapter on Story beginnings. The book "The Craft in Fiction - Things Feigned or Imagined" by Fred Stenson is a great book (and inexpensive) that provides a lot of tips and insights into problems budding writers may experience.

    Chapter 8 Deals with your problem and I'll just copy some of the things he says here for you to read:

    "How should a story begin? Some blunt and all-encompassing things have been said on this subject. Given the almost limitless capacity of writers to begin stories in new and effective ways, nothing so final will be said here. Edgar Allan Poe's fiction definition,...implies that if you blow your first line or paragraph, all is lost. It is true that no story can afford to begin ineffectively, but the insistence of some that the story always begin with impact! has led to excess.

    Blood suddenly oozed under the door.
    She looked up and the elevator streaked down the shaft toward her.


    It may not be wrong to try hard to rivet attention at the outset, but a study of how skillful writers begin short stories yields the truth that nothing needs to explode, no one needs to die, in sentence one."

    There's a lot more that Stenson writes on this subject, but I figure for opening sentences this makes a good point.

    I hope this helped :)
     
  22. Ice
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    Ice Member

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    Hmm. I like being confused in the beginning. Steven Erikson does this really well, IMO.
     
  23. tehuti88
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    tehuti88 Contributing Member

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    None of the examples posted are enough for me to determine whether the entire story is worth reading or not. (And even if they were, I could soon be proven wrong by a shoddy story that just happens to have a great first sentence.) That was the point I was making. Perhaps one sentence is enough for others here to determine such a thing, but I guess I need to look at the bigger picture and take more than that one thing into account when deciding. To me, judging the worth of a book based on the first sentence alone would be about the same as judging it based on the book's cover. A snap judgement based on so little could be way off.

    I also notice that some of the examples here are not the first sentence but the first two sentences and such. Sometimes a first sentence really isn't enough to stand on its own, and I think many beginning writers could be agonizing over making that FIRST SINGLE SENTENCE absolutely perfect when a lot of times, it really can't be done.

    My point is, one should try to make the first sentence the best they can, but they shouldn't beat themselves over the head if they have to settle instead for making the best first paragraph they can. Not every first sentence is going to be stellar, and beginning writers need to know that this won't necessarily ruin their stories.
     
  24. Cheeno
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    Cheeno Contributing Member

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    Personally, I'd focus more on finishing the work than fretting about beginnings, but, the unfortunate reality sees most books bought on the strength of how the first page 'hits' the reader. Of course, you also have the 'battle of the covers' to contend with before the first page comes into it.
     
  25. architectus
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    architectus Banned

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    Fledgeling, Octavia E. Butler
    I awoke to Darkness. I was hungry--starving!--and I was in pain.
    I like openings that make me curious. Why did she wake to darkness? Why was she starving? Why was she in pain. The next paragraph.
    I was lying on something hard and uneven, and it hurt me.
    The Parable of the Sower, Octavia E. Butler (Sci-fi)
    I had my recurring dream last night. I guess I should have expected it. It comes to me when I struggle--when I twist on my own personal hook and nothing unusual is happening.
    First line makes me curious. Next line makes me even more curious ad answers no questions. Third line sort of answers a question, clarifies a bit, but makes me wonder even more. Makes me more curious.

    I like the first line of my sci-fi novel I have been working on, Agija of Agukas. Thanks to COG pointing out the heavy adjectives in the original, I believe it is much better now.
    The bioengineered falcon swooped down from the grey-blue sky homing in on the house.

    If I did my job right, it makes the reader curious. But it also shows that it will be a sci-fi with futuristic technology.

    Thanks the Kas the next lines are better.
    Programmed for recon, the falcon scanned the area, flew back to its master, and landed on his shoulder. “Robert, home,” it squawked, using altered vocal cords.

    The Borne Indentity, Robert Ludlum


    The trawler plunged into the angry swells of the dark, furious sea like an awkward animal trying desperately to break out of the impenetrable swamp.

    Just how in the hell did he get himself into that situation? Will he survive?

    Still Alice, Lisa Genova

    Alice sat at her desk in their bedroom distracted by the sounds of John racing through each of the rooms on the first floor.

    It seems to ma that all great openings make you curious and keep you curious.

    The Hunger Games, Susanne Collins

    When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had a bad dream and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.

    Although the first line makes you curious, it is the first paragraph that really does the job.
     

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