Fantastic First Lines

Parts vs. Whole

I have focused quite a bit on sentences that are fantastic in isolation, that make us take notice through their utter simplicity or powerful independent impact. But sometimes the impact of an opening sentence is difficult to separate from the effect of an entire book. So intertwined are the memories of characters and plot twists with the memory of a particular opening sentence that the sentence itself has the power to unlock emotional connections far beyond what the words themselves seem capable of arousing. It is hard in these cases to separate the effect of the part from the effect of the whole. Consider the following:

“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away….”

Oh, wait, that’s not even a sentence from a book. It makes my point, though. As soon as that sentence came into my head it was immediately joined by the theme song, images of the characters, and memories of various plot points. If that didn’t happen for you, then I suspect you were either raised by wolves or perhaps have a few faulty connections in your brain.

Books are the same way. A simple sentence, seemingly meek and without impact, can pack a powerful punch once it becomes associated in the memory with everything that follows it in a book we adore. There are many examples of this in children’s literature. Here are a few that stand out for me (and I’m pretty sure I don’t need to list the book titles for you):

“It was a dark and stormy night.”

“‘Where’s papa going with that axe?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.”

“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”

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Marvelously Mundane Openers

Some authors like to open their books with verbal fireworks designed to grab attention. Others hook the reader with bold hints of what is to come. These are tried and true methods and there’s no reason not to appreciate them.

But there’s nothing quite like a simple and seemingly mundane declarative sentence to open a book. I love it when an author opens with a sentence that has no spectacular or shocking content on the surface, doesn’t hint strongly of any underlying mystery, seems to contain no real action or urgency, but yet…entices me to keep reading.

Not everyone can pull it off. A book that starts with a sentence like, “The sky was blue,” would not entice me to keep reading. Sure, it is simple and declarative. But it isn’t interesting. No, to be interesting, a sentence must have some sort of secret ingredient, something that reaches out from the seemingly mundane and gives the reader a subtle elbow in the ribs as if to indicate that  attention must be paid.

It’s an even greater challenge to open with such sentences in literature written for kids. Kids are busy. They have lives to lead, trees to climb, bikes to ride, Lego sets to build, soccer practices to attend. They don’t have time for boring sentences. Nevertheless, there are countless examples of authors writing marvelously mundane opening sentences for kids. Here’s one example:

“On a warm October night in Chicago, three deliveries were made in the same neighborhood.”
Blue Balliett
Chasing Vermeer

What could be more boring than a sentence about deliveries? And yet, we are left wondering…what kind of deliveries? Packages, letters,  babies, what? Delivered by whom? In a truck or on foot? And why does it matter? In short, it is a mundane sentence with only a half-finished thought, a sentence that is pregnant with possibility and has the subtle effect of forcing the reader to continue reading. Another example:

“When the city of Ember was just built and not yet inhabited, the chief builder and the assistant builder, both of them weary, sat down to speak of the future.”
Jeanne DuPrau
The City of Ember

You get the idea. This, essentially, is a sentence describing a city planning meeting. Anyone who has ever visited a meeting involving the planning department knows one thing: it isn’t exciting. Why, then, do I want to keep reading? There is some sort of secret ingredient in that sentences. What is it?

 

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Short and Sweet

I’m a sucker for short opening sentences. I admit it. Give me a sentence that is less than ten words, pack it with just enough information to make me want to keep reading, and I am a happy camper.

It’s easier to say than to do. Writers love words, after all, and every writer is always tempted to add just a few more words–a little more explanation, just one more adjective or adverb, an extra clause to make things clear–to anything they write. See, I did it right there. But adjectives and adverbs, clauses and explanations can sometimes be like salt on food: a little bit improves the taste, but too much can ruin the meal.

That is why it takes a special kind of self-confidence and skill to start a book with a sentence that is short and sweet. We should recognize authors when they can do it with style.

Here are two examples:

“Nicholas Flamel is dying.”

Michael Scott
The Warlock

 

Four words. That’s right, four words packed with urgency and interest. Can you stop reading after that? Now check out this one:

“Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood.”

Rick Riordan
The Lightning Thief

 

Yes, it’s true that Mr Riordan used twice as many words, eight instead of four. But look what he accomplished: from those eight simple words we know that Percy is something called a half-blood (what is that?), that he has something of an attitude (my life is more of a burden than you think), and that he feels the need to get our attention (“Look”).

Bravo.

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Grickle-Grass

Remember this?

“At the far end of town
where the Grickle-grass grows
and the wind smells slow-and-sour when it blows
and no birds ever sing excepting old crows
is the Street of the Lifted Lorax”

Dr. Suess
The Lorax
I thought so. Powerful, memorable stuff and one of those sentences that lets you know immediately that you’ve entered an entirely different, but very imaginative, world.
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