The First Sentence
Lately, I’ve become preoccupied with story beginnings. I blame a writer’s conference I went to where I had to turn in the first 250 words of a short story. I was amazed at how little I had conveyed in those 250 words. (I wrote a post about it, which you can read if you want to called “Beginnings, the First 250 Words.”) Last week, I submitted a short story for the first time to a literary journal. As part of the online submission process, I had to copy and paste the first 300 words of my story into the form, along with the title and my name and then attach the word document. I’m guessing that the readers read the first 300 words and if the story pulls them in, they’ll open up the attachment.
Now I’m reading Stein on Writing by former literary agent Sol Stein. In the chapter where he talks about beginnings, he focuses his discussion on the first sentence. About it, Stein asks:
- Does it convey an interesting personality or an action that we want to know more about?
- Can you make your first sentence more intriguing by introducing something unusual, something shocking perhaps, or something that will surprise the reader?
Since I’m writing short stories these days, I took a look at some stories from my favorite writers to see what they were conveying in the first sentence. Here’s what I came up with.
There are cavemen in the hedges again. — Stacey Richter, “Cavemen in the Hedges.”
Mom said I was thenceforth to be her nephew, and to call her Aunt Dora. — E. L. Doctorow, “A House On The Plains.”
They told Grace they’d found her curled into a nest of leaves, that since dawn they’d been following a strange spoor through the bush, and then, just as they’d begun to smell her, there she was, staring up at them through a cloud of iridescent flies. — Lynn Freed, “Sunshine.”
In an ideal world, we would have been orphans. — Miranda July, “Something that Needs Nothing.”
Safety Man is all shriveled and puckered inside his zippered nylon carrying tote, and taking him out is always the hardest part. — Dan Chaon, “Safety Man.”
The man who knew what I was about to say sat next to me on the plane, a stupid smile plastered across his face. — Etgar Keret, “Mystique.”
Here’s the story of my life: whatever I did wasn’t good enough, anything I figured out I figured out too late, and whenever I tried to help I made things worse. — Jim Shepard,”Boys Town.”
As I said, these are all short stories, but I could write a list of just as many first sentences from novels that work just as hard to convey an interesting personality or an action and introduce something unusual, shocking, or surprising. Take a look at your first sentences, as I will, and see how they can work harder for you.
Photo: highlandarma / Flickr Creative Commons