Joan Didion told the Paris Review in 1978, “What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.”
Hey, no pressure.
For me, writing first sentences begins with a state of paralysis and then becomes a creative joy. Once that first sentence forms out of the murkiness in my head, or wherever it is that writing takes place, honing it is a profound pleasure. But before that, when you know you’ve got a lot to say but you need to say it in a way that people will hear, which means the first sentence must capture the reader intellectually, emotionally, viscerally, or all of the above—that’s when I’m paralyzed.
Getting past that paralysis and forming the right first sentence, for me, requires sinking my mind down deep into my psyche and letting thoughts and images and colors all swirl around me until something begins to take shape.
An English professor once told me that the first sentence of a great novel lets the reader know what the novel is really about, underneath all those plot devices. That’s even truer of journalism, of course, and with technical writing; it’s just the writing style that differs.
I have to say, though: I just visited Amazon.com and read the first lines of a number of great novels, and while I can see that case being made for some of them—for example, in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, Hazel Motes is on a train, not sure if he wants to jump out or lean forward into the journey—most of the others I checked had much more to do with setting the emotional scene of a lead character as he or she is at the beginning of the novel, or even just setting the physical scene.
In my own novel, Voices, I tried to do as my English professor taught—to encompass the most fundamental theme of the book in the first sentence. Maybe that’s a mistake; somebody said that the more education a writer has the worse his or her writing is.
Naturally, in journalism, especially with the shorter pieces, the first sentence must get the gist of the rest of the story into those first few words. In longer pieces, you can take more time; use an anecdote to illustrate what the piece is about. If that progression is followed, a novelist should have the whole first chapter to make the basic theme clear.
Unfortunately, readers today have shorter and shorter attention spans. They want the goods immediately, and they don’t want to have to work for them—or, at least, that’s my perception. That first sentence is even more crucial these days to hooking your reader than it was in days past.
So, how to write that perfect first sentence for today’s reading public? Sources on the web recommend being “short and snappy,” introducing a question that the reader will want answered, and including a shocking or surprising element.
Maybe a more important question is this: are you just out to “hook up” with your reader, or do you really want to make love to him or her? Maybe taking a little time to build a reader’s desire to move further into your world isn’t such a bad thing. Or maybe that’s a surefire way to not get published.
I’m wondering what tricks other writers use to come up with the best possible first sentence. Some people just start scribbling and then delete everything except what really resonates and develop the sentence from that. Some people stare into space for an hour or more waiting for inspiration to emerge from the depths like a wavering light slowly approaching on a foggy night. Some people just write any old thing and come back and agonize over it later, once they know exactly what the whole piece is going to say.
What do you do? What are your favorite first sentences and why? How do you formulate your own first sentences? How do you get past the paralysis, or do you experience that at all? I would be fascinated to hear from you.
Never stop writing,