A Good Start | Great First Sentences

The most important part of a book is the first chapter, the first paragraph, the first sentence.

Reading

The writer needs to hook the reader quickly, get him interested in the story and keep reading. In the excellent writer’s manual Stein on Writing, Sol Stein says the following about getting and keeping readers’ attention:

“Today’s impatient readers give a novelist fewer than seven minutes. Some years ago I was involved in an informal study of the behavior of lunch-hour browsers in mid-Manhattan bookstores. In the fiction section, the most common pattern was for the browser  to read the front flap of the book’s jacket and then go to page one. No browser went beyond page three before either taking the book to the cashier or putting the book down and picking up another sample.

Thereafter, whenever an author told me that his novel really got started on page ten or twenty, I had to pass on the news that his book in all likelihood was doomed unless he could revise it so that the first three pages aroused the reader’s interest enough to quarantine him from distraction for the several hours the book demanded from him.

Readers have not grown more patient since that bit of research was conducted. Today, first sentences and first paragraphs of any writing are increasingly important for arousing the restless reader.”

A few year’s back, I bought a book almost completely because of the first few lines. This is a fairly rare occurrence. More commonly I will browse the bookstore and then browse the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads after I get home. It is most often only on the second trip to the bookstore (or Amazon), after a bit or research, that I commit to buying the book.

The following lines gripped my attention so completely that I bought the book right away.

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.
      The knife had a handle of polished black bone, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. If it sliced you, you might not even know you had been cut, not immediately.
      The knife had done almost everything it had been brought to that house to do, and both the blade and the handle were wet.

Would you not have done the same? Do you not want to read on?

The writer’s job…

The writer’s job, in the first few lines, is to get our attention as readers. The rest of the chapter must then do the following: introduce a character that the reader feels something about, good or bad (indifference is your enemy); set a tone, a theme and set the story in time and place; most importantly the chapter must end in a way that leaves the reader thinking “And then what happens?” The daVinci Code’s wild popularity can be attributed to the fact that at the end of every chapter the reader was left with “What happens next?”.

At this point I must admit that I read The daVinci Code in a flash, turning pages and biting my nails. When I was done, I threw the book at the wall and said, out loud, “That is possibly the worst book I ever read.” But read it I did, as did millions of others. Dan Brown keeps the reader curious, and thus keeps him turning pages.

Another unput-downable book opening:

Wishing to avoid any risk of a snub at The Hushed Hill Country Club, the first thing Emil Jadick shoved through the door was double-barreled and loaded. He and the other two Wingmen were inappropriately attired in camouflage shirts and ski masks, but the gust with which they flaunted their firearms squelched any snide comments from the guests around the poker table.

Jadick took charge of the rip-off by placing both cool barrels against the neck of a finely coiffed, silver-haired gent, and saying loudly, “Do I have your attention? We’re robbin’ you assholes – any objections?”

That paragraph is from Muscle for the Wing, by Daniel Woodrell (one of my favorite authors). Woodrell writes about rough people doing rough things, but he does it in prose that makes me pale-purple with envy.

Stein on WritingWhat are some of your favorite book openings? Have you ever bought a book after reading only a few lines?

And, if for some reason you do not already own a copy of Stein on Writing, buy one now.

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One thought on “A Good Start | Great First Sentences

  1. Once, when I was younger and studying creative writing, I heard one author talk about his books. He was asked for advice for good start and he said, that he usually deleted the first paragraph of the very first drafts (excluding in media res openings). He found that the second paragraph was usually better first paragraph than the original one.

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