How much do first sentences contribute to the success of a book, and are they really the reason why we continue or stop reading?
“Like any reader, when I pick up a book, I open it and check out the first words. I’m not looking for anything specific. Actually, what I love about opening sentences is the complete lack of rules, how each writer gets to decide how best to guide a reader into their narrative.”
In her opinion piece ‘My Life’s Sentences’ for New York Times, Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri likens her first sentence experience to the chemistry between two people meeting for the first time.
“The first sentence of a book is a handshake, perhaps an embrace. Style and personality are irrelevant. They can be formal or casual. They can be tall or short or fat or thin. They can obey the rules or break them. But they need to contain a charge. A live current, which shocks and illuminates.”
First sentences are more than a teasing window display vying for our attention and enticing into the store. They hold out their hand and promise to lead us into other worlds, ideas and emotions.
So what makes us decide whether we follow or not?
"As a reader, a really wonderful opening line makes me giddy with excitement. I nestle myself as deeply into my couch as I can go, and I accept the deal the novel has offered me. Yes, I will read the rest of you. You’ve earned it."
For writers then, memorable and gripping first sentences seem to be the holy grail. 'How To' articles urge writer's to produce first sentences that are ‘vivid, establish a unique voice, are surprising, are funny, hold the spark and tone of narrative voice, hold the weight of the theme and story, and act as a launch pad.
It seems first sentences carry the weight of the book’s world upon their shoulders. Not gripping enough? Then the capricious reader will close the book. The world and characters within miss their chance to exist.
In a 2013 interview with The Atlantic newspaper, prolific horror writer Stephen King acknowledges writing first sentences is ‘a tricky thing’.
“To get scientific about it is a little like trying to catch moonbeams in a jar.”
He goes onto say
“But there's one thing I'm sure about. An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”
If this is what first sentences are for the reader. What are they for the writer? King continues,
"…It's not just the reader's way in, it's the writer's way in also, and you've got to find a doorway that fits us both. I think that's why my books tend to begin as first sentences … “
Does he have a 'best' first line?
“I can tell you right now that the best first line I ever wrote -- and I learned it from Cain, and learned it from Fairbairn -- is the opening of Needful Things….
You've been here before.
All there by itself on one page, inviting the reader to keep reading. It suggests a familiar story; at the same time, the unusual presentation brings us outside the realm of the ordinary. And this, in a way, is a promise of the book that's going to come. “
Like King, Russell acknowledges the impact of first sentences on writers,
“As a writer, the opening line is the purest, most unadulterated part of a work. Before it, the blank page. After it, the whole of a story, a novel, a book. It is the division between nothing and something, the bridge between emptiness and fullness, between something in your head and something on the page...”
But has it always been like this? Where has this pressure for first sentences to be so enticingly perfect come from?
In an article for Electric Literature, Andrew Heisel traces the history of first sentence since the 1850s. Heisel highlights how the function, expectation and appeal of a novel's first sentence has coalesced with writing trends in journalism and advertising which in turn developed in response to the growth in industrialisation and urban living.
For the aspiring novelist, journalism — writing for newspapers or the new national magazines that rapidly spread across the country starting in the 1880s — was increasingly serving as an apprentice discipline, and so it’s no surprise its methods would soon manifest themselves in fiction.
Heisel points out
"The most obvious analogue to the novel’s first sentence is the newspaper’s “lede” [lead paragraph], a form that developed over the nineteenth century alongside more sensational efforts focused on attracting a mass audience. "
Advertising then directly drew from journalism and novels.
"Advertisers came to find, like novelists, that buyers were more easily lured by the vistas the book or product could open up than in the details like the birthplace of the protagonist or the effectiveness of the soap."
The revolution in advertising during this period was to learn not simply to explain the product but to make it appealing, not to sell the bare goods, but to invite the buyer into a world, to present at a glance a lifestyle he or she would want to inhabit.
"Every advertiser was a novelist, every novelist, at least for a sentence, an advertiser."
So much so that,
"The first sentence, itself described as a “decoy for attention” in a 1930 story on the new art, is a lure within a lure, created in a new economy increasingly predicated on commercial diversification and instant appeal, in a book market that had never been so populated.
And whilst Heisel acknowledges that "“Great first lines” are damningly useful,' he points out that
"In discussions of book selection online, readers much more commonly say they buy because of the cover, blurbs, and recommendations, which aligns with what little market research today is public. Those who do sample the prose say they read somewhere from the middle as often as the beginning."
Moreover, the expectation of a killer first line is detrimental to the value and potential the novel form in general.
"If they’re not allowed a more humble scope than this, then they’re in danger of fleeing the novel — being less important to a book and its readers than to the desperate tussle of financial concerns that pull at it. There’s a danger that a great first sentence might be nothing more than a great first sentence."
Russell also points out
"It would be easy to think of opening sentences as somehow representative of the rest of the book, as exemplifying some quintessence of the novel’s aims, but this isn’t––and shouldn’t––always be so ..."
Now Novel urges writers to view first sentences in context .
“How often have you stayed up far too late with a book so that you could read just one more chapter? In a well-constructed novel, that one more chapter can turn into just one more, and one more and one more until you are sleep deprived. You are carried deeper into the novel a little bit at a time. First lines are just the beginning of this process.”
What was the first sentence of the last book you read, and what was your experience?
The Millions: The Art Of The Opening Sentence
The Atlantic: Why Stephen King Spends 'Months and Even Years' Writing Opening Sentences
Now Novel: How to start a novel: First sentences, first paragraphs
Electric Literature: In Search of the Novel’s First Sentence: A Secret History
The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest (where 'WWW'stands for 'Wretched Writers Welcome')
33 Of The Most Hilariously Terrible First Sentences In Literature History