If you’re a reader, you know that most stories don’t begin when the main character is born, following him/her through childhood and teenage years, etc. unless that’s the purpose of the story. Stories begin in the middle of people’s lives, they assume a background (which the writer may hint at or develop during the story), an already formed personality, friends, family or lack thereof, a place to live in, a path chosen. Authors usually concentrate on one slice of life, even when they write a family saga. That’s why the first sentence of a book is so important.
The first sentence allows you to jump in the middle but also to hook the readers and prompt them to read the next sentence, then the next, then the next…
John Gardner was a master at the first sentence. Here are a few of his most intriguing ones:
“One day in April–a clear, blue day when there were crocuses in bloom–Jack Hawthorne rand over and killed his brother, David.” (Redemption)
“I had been troubled for days–odd sounds, objects our of place, all the pitiful and mundane symptoms of a disordered mind, symptoms I know all too well, coming as I do from a family of lunatics, as everyone knows–when a few odd phrases in a book on aesthetics threw everything into sharp new perspective.” (The Library Horror)
“There once was a man who made pictures on boxes.” (Vlemk the Box-painter)
“There used to be a cook in our town, a “chef” he was called in the restaurant where he worked–one of those big, dark Italian places with red fake-leather seat cushions, fake paintings on the walls, and on every table a Chianti bottle with a candle in it–but he preferred to think of himself as simply a cook, since he’d never been comfortable with high-falutin pretense, or so he claimed, though heaven knew the world was full of it, and since, whereas he knew what cooking was, all he knew for sure about chefs, he said, was that they wore those big, obsene-looking hats, which he himself wouldn’t be caught dead in.” (The Art of Living)
Now jump in the middle of ten stories by writing the first sentence of it:
- The first time I met my future husband, I disliked him on sight.
- Sally hated her name; she said it was a dogâ€™s name, or even a horseâ€™s name, but certainly not a girlâ€™s name.
- Squeezed between the mountains to the south, and the tundra to the north, there lives a village with no personality.
- We all are prisoners of our memories; reality and history do not necessarily coincide.
- Torver Lockwood checked his watch. Damn, he thought, I blinked and another year disappeared.
- That night, Lucy began to plot ways of getting rid of all the kids she had to watch over.
- Sam Trudeau had not sold a car for three weeks now, and he was afraid he might have lost the magic.
- The road to Quepos slices through the mountains before it plunges, like a pearl diver, to sea level.
- â€œIf you knew my secret,â€ said Lando the Magician, â€œit would damn you along with me.â€
- â€œIn the name of His Majesty, King George V, you are hereby sentenced to hang by the neck until death.â€