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

11 Comments on “The First Sentence”

  1. This post reminds me that I need to order Sol Stein’s book ASAP!

    Re: first sentences: As a reader, I don’t hone in on the first sentence as much as the first paragraph or page. Oftentimes, when I’m deciding whether or not to buy a short story collection, I’ll read the first page of the first few stories and decide whether they pull me in enough to purchase the collection. The same goes for stories published in lit mags — if I don’t like the way the story starts, I usually don’t stick it out until the end. It’s an important thing to remember as a writer.

    • Indeed. There are lots of great short stories and novels that have a first sentence that you might not think is special. So it’s not a rule. But certainly all great stories have wonderful beginnings.

  2. Have just been planning a post on a similar topic, been thinking a lot about first lines lately. Thanks for sharing this list, and the link above. Off to contemplate first lines!

  3. I really liked sol Sletin’s book On Writing. One of my favourites. Really changed the way I wrote. I’d say that one and Save the Cat! are the two that impacted my writing the most.
    I’ve been struggling with my opening lines lately. I’ve left them behind for a while, I’ll come back to them later and see how they stand. I find openings unbelievable difficult.
    Good luck with your shorts!

  4. This is really interesting. A lot of those first sentences were really good, and make me want to look into the stories! The first sentence. Generally, I have an easy time with those, because I don’t have any idea what I’m about to write when I start writing. So the first sentence isn’t just something that’s interesting for the reader, it has to be interesting enough for me to elaborate on. Most often, they’re brain dumps, though not necessarily bad ones. xD

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