Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Importance of First Sentences

by Jackie King

Are first sentences really that important? This topic is often discussed in a group called Smart Women Writers. One very successful author suggested that writers shouldn’t spend too much time worrying about the first line, since all lines were important. Good point. But I still sweat over those first few words.

One writer posed this question to members: “What’s the all-time favorite first line that you’ve written?”

That writer’s name is Susan Shay, author of BLIND SIGHT, MAKE ME HOWL and TO SCHOOL A COWBOY. The line she picked came from a current work-in-progress:
Blind Sight by Susan Shay
“Lucy Lu’s dad was driving her crazy; since his death he just wouldn’t shut up.”

Is that great or what?

Most of us have a favorite opening line. Mine was written by Deborah Camp in her book, BLAZING EMBERS. (Awful title, she hated it too, but you know editors.):
Blazing Embers by Deborah Camp

“Burying a body is grave business.”


Below I’ve added the first line from my first Grace Cassidy mystery, THE INCONVENIENT CORPSE:
“Grace Cassidy stared at the stranger’s body; he was about sixty, pot-bellied, naked, and very dead.”

THE CORPSE WHO WALKED IN THE DOOR, the second in that series, had to be revised. Here’s the result:

“The knife dripped blood with each step that Grace Cassidy ran.”

Book three, THE CORPSE AND THE GEEZER BRIGADE, starts like this:

“The last thing Grace Cassidy expected to see when she accepted a job as inn sitter in Tulsa, was a gathering of steely-eyed old men seated in the library of the B&B.”

First lines from some of my published novellas:

“It was madness. One didn’t buy a husband in the same way one bought a lumberyard.”

(Okay, that’s two sentences.) The Spinster, the Pig and the Orphan: from the anthology THE FOXY HENS AND MURDER MOST FOWL. Deadly Niche Press.
“I went on two first dates with my ex-husband.” 
Flirting at Fifty; from the anthology CHIK~LIT FOR FOXY HENS. Diva Publishing.

My current WIP, (working title switches between GOOSE OVER MY GRAVE and THE EDGE OF NOWHERE):

“Liz O’Brien’s day started with a feeling of wrongness.”

This is a suspense novel and will have a change of pace from my usual cozy mystery. If anyone out there has a preference for either of these titles, please let me know.


In conclusion let me quote a statement from Stephen King in a 2013 interview:

"An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story... it should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this."

No one can say it better than the master-writer himself.

Does anyone out in cyberland have a favorite first line? If so, I’d love to hear it.




Bill Kirton said...

In a way, I also felt the importance of first sentences lay in the feeling of relief and release they produced in the author to know that s/he had at last got started. But you're right, of course: a good one sucks you in and, equally, a bad one can make you shut the book. The only one of mine that a reviewer has ever remarked on is the opening of the preface to The Sparrow Conundrum: 'They were desperate to get rid of their virginity and this was the night.'

I love the opening of Elmore Leonard's Tishomingo Blues. It's long and the second sentence needs to be included as part of its impact:‘Dennis Lenehan the high diver would tell people that if you put a fifty-cent piece on the floor and looked down on it, that’s what the tank looked like from the top of that eighty-foot steel ladder … when he told this to girls who hung out at amusement parks they’d put a cute look of pain on their faces and say what he did was awesome. But wasn’t it like really dangerous?’

But the one which has always been fascinating for me is from Madame Bovary. It seems harmless: 'We were in class when the head-master came in, followed by a "new fellow," not wearing the school uniform, and a school servant carrying a large desk'. It's not the content of the sentence that's striking, it's that first 'We'. It means the narrator (Flaubert) was in Emma Bovary's husband's class, but the 'we' never appears again after that opening scene and yet all the innermost, intimate sequences of Emma's life are recounted by him.

Jackie King said...

You're right about a good first sentence producing a feeling of relief in the writer. Thanks for adding that. The first sentences you've mentioned are truly wonderful. That first line from THE SPARROW CONUNDRUM rocks!

Thanks for your input.

Debby said...

Hi! I remember that you always liked that first sentence in Blazing Embers.
I really enjoyed this post.
And I'm crazy about The Edge of Nowhere.

Jackie King said...

Thanks, Debby. Your opinion counts a lot with me.

Jean Henry Mead said...

I consider all first lines important. They set the stage for the entire book. I liked all the first sentences you listed, especially yours.

Jackie King said...

Thanks, Jean. You've done some first lines yourself that grab my attention.