The Most Critical Piece

I care not what anyone says. The most essential part of your story is not your characters, your plot, your stunning scenes or any other of that sort of nonsense. No. The most critical piece to your story is your frist sentence.

That is correct. If you do not have a stellar first sentence, no one will read your story no matter how great the inner contents are. The fact of life is, people bore easily and if they are not entertained, they will put your book down to gather dust on the shelf, never to be opened again and adored by their eyes as is its due.

I am currently reading a book called “Hooked” but Les Edgerton. In this hysterical little thing the author describes the importance of having an exciting “hook” that will grab and keep the reader’s attention. The first sentence is key. The only other sentence that has close to the same importance is the last one. (For those who struggle with first chapters – I recommend this book).

Anyway, besides helping me craft my tale, this book got me thinking about first sentences. Some are great, some quite frankly, stink. The great ones throw you right into the action, the bad ones talk about things like the weather or make you roll your eyes. I have come up with a list.

BAD FIRST SENTENCES

  1. The moment he laid eyes on inmate #472825994, he became a prisoner of love.
  2. It was a dark and stormy night.
  3. His mind was like lightning, a quick flash followed be darkness.
  4. McMurphy hit the ground running like a bag filled with vegetable soup.
  5. On a nice day, a nice man and a nice woman sat on a nice bench in a nice park.
  6. The blood dripped from his nose like hot grease from a roasting bratwurst.
  7. Pants were for bankers or lawyers or Parliament. No, Adam would find his own way.
  8. He smelled rotting pork.
  9. The blue bottle fly performed long swooping wingovers above my coffee.
  10. Paul had athlete’s foot.

Really? Who came up with these? You are of course entitled to disagree, but some of these seriously made me LOL!

GOOD FIRST SENTENCES

  1. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of considerable fortune must be in want of a wife. – Jane Austen
  2. He was so mean that whatever part of town he was standing in was the bad part of town. -Les Edgerson
  3. Scarlet O’Hara was not pretty. – Margaret Mitchell
  4. Elmer Gantry was drunk. – Sinclair Lewis
  5. Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person. – Anne Tyler
  6. You better not tell nobody but God. – Alice Walker
  7. Justice? You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law. – William Gaddis
  8. Mother died today. – Albert Camus
  9. I am an invisible man. – Ralph Ellison
  10. You have 879 pages to go. – I have no idea

Feel free to disagree on the last one, but I thought it was brilliant in a funny way. All of these grasp the reader’s attention and refuse to let go. You get sucked in right away. Conflict, tension, humor. These sentences do not want to relinquish you. At that very first moment, you want to know more. It gives you just enough to leave you satisfied but still thirsty. Like a salad or an appetizer. You satiate some hunger, but still have plenty of room for and are in eager anticipation of the main course. And just to continue with this quirky little analoguy we’ll call the last sentence dessert.

Allow me a list of my own first sentences and see what you think!

  1. Damn. Another pothole. Didn’t professional drivers take courses in smooth driving? – BMK
  2. Widowed at seventeen. – Save Me a Seat
  3. Someone screamed. Then nothing. – Damn Brits

And my personal favorite at the moment:

     4. He had a knife to her throat. – Rescue Me

Creative Writing Goals

Rescue Me: Haven’t gotten anywhere, finish the third journal.

BMK: THINK OF A BETTER TITLE!!! (Help! Specifically biddie and Ralph who have read it in its entirety)

Damn Brits: Do something with it.

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About Miss Rosemary

is a recent college graduate from NY hoping to complete her novel of ten years. Stop by her blog, Miss Rosemary's Novel Ideas at http://missrosemary.net or contact her at MissRosemarysNovelIdeas@gmail.com with comments, questions and suggestions. She'd love to hear from you! View all posts by Miss Rosemary

23 responses to “The Most Critical Piece

  • junebugger

    Hmmm I’m going to have to agree and disagree with you on this subject.

    The first sentence is indeed important, but more so for a commercial novel. There’s something called the 30-second rule, I believe, where the story needs to catch the reader’s attention within that span, which will determine whether or not they’ll buy the book. This is because people will pick up commercial novels at places like grocery stores, and the first page needs to catch their attention quick, before the person moves on with his/her grocery shopping. Even in bookstores, when a commercial novel is picked up, because these novels are read to entertain, it needs to catch the reader right away. I don’t think it’s so much the case with more literary novels. I think, in this case, the content is more patient. The audience who read literature are more patient, I should think.

    I disagree in another sense because while the first sentene might be important for a debut novel, it doesn’t really apply to novel written by well-established authors. People tend to buy books just because the author’s name is on it. The established authors have more leniency, and can drag a bit in the begginning, but readers will continue to read, because the author is like a brand promising fun later on.

    So I guess it really depends!

    Great article. I love these kind of posts that gets my brain working

    • Miss Rosemary

      I’m not disregarding all the other elements of course! But you’re right, it is more important for debut and commerical novels than other types of works. Unfortunately, almost everything is about marketing and money these days and literary audiences are more willing to wait.
      That being said, having yet to debut a novel and become established in the literary world, this is crucial for me!! lol 🙂
      Glad we can agree to disagree with no bloodshed!

  • krisceratops

    Okay, I totally just snorted laughing out loud at some of those first sentences! Gotta say though, I did enjoy:

    “McMurphy hit the ground running like a bag filled with vegetable soup.”
    “Pants were for bankers or lawyers or Parliament. No, Adam would find his own way.”
    “Paul had athlete’s foot.”

    They almost remind me of writing prompts. I’m tempted to fill in what comes next…

  • Ciao Raffaele

    Try this for Damn Brits: An inhuman, yet deafening scream ricocheted off the walls of the manor, a scream that was quickly demanded by the eerie unseen presence of silence to refrain its call.

    “Someone screamed. then silence” I don’t think this captures the whole large manor, murder, chills down the spine effect. As I kept on reading, you later play well with the visuals. Why not initially play with the audio? What do you think?

    -Alpha Betsoop.

  • brownpaperbaggirl

    First sentences are important for sure. I think that its not something in which the writer should end up staring at a blank page unwilling to write more of the story without the perfect first sentence, however. That is what revisions are for!

    I LOLed out those bad opening sentences.

    • Miss Rosemary

      The best part about them is that they were all REAL! I don’t know if they were actual novels or short stories or what have you (Google wasn’t specific) but someone somewhere published them! Hopefully just for the humor …

  • Lua

    “Scarlet O’Hara was not pretty” , “Mother died today” and also, “Call me Ishmael.” are some of my all time favorites! 🙂
    I had that book for ages now but for some reason I couldn’t get around to reading it.
    I’m quiet obsessive about my first sentences, I rewrite them like a 1000 times but when I’m reading a book, I noticed that I don’t really pay any special attention to the first sentence…
    But, “On a nice day, a nice man and a nice woman sat on a nice bench in a nice park”??
    Oh Boy! 🙂

    • Miss Rosemary

      I know right? I cringed.
      I feel the same way about first serntences! Until I started writing and spending so much time on the opening phrase, I never gave much tought to them. I think that might be part of the reason why they have to be so good – because they have to hook you without you realizing it!
      And do pick up the book. It’s not dull at all and quite helpful – my copy has a buch of post-its all over it 🙂

  • Ollin Morales

    This is intimidating. I feel like my first sentences are awful, I don’t really pay attention to them. But you’re right, some of the best works all have great first sentences and catch you right away. Then again some sort of drag for pages and pages. I know that the brother’s karamozov drags on for chapters, but its actually a GREAT read once you get to the end where a murder mystery, a court scene, and a love story, and a family drama are all mixed into one. Thanks, this is definitely something to think about.

    • Miss Rosemary

      Glad I could be of assistance! And don’t worry, I’m not discounting everything else that goes into a novel as unimportant – because it’s not! I struggle with first senteces too, hence the reason for this post. I either get “nice park” or “no pants”: boring and laughably funny. As Lua said, the first sentence changes about 1000 times!

  • Admitting My Weaknesses « Courage 2 Create

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  • Corra McFeydon

    First sentences are important, but I wouldn’t say they make or break a book. I do think they accurately reflect the talent of the story-teller and ought to suggest the voice of the story. A false impression within an opening sentence/story can make that first novel the only one buyers buy. If you’re going to write quietly throughout the novel, you should have a quiet first sentence. If you’re going to be hooky, that first sentence should hook. Consistency is, I think, the important factor within the opening. (IMO!)

    Margaret Mitchell was misquoted within the article? Her first sentence was not ‘Scarlett O’Hara was not pretty.’ It was :

    Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.

    Now that’s a first sentence! 🙂

    Great meeting you, Rosemary! I love your blog.Very lively!

    – Corra

    the victorian heroine

    • Miss Rosemary

      My apaologies! I wrote the post during my lunch break and didn’t have the book on hand, I will change it pronto!
      And like I said to June, I am not discrediting the rest of a novel: the first sentence does not in fact make or break a book in the literary sense; it makes it or breaks it in keeping readers with you (ok fine so this should be the first page or two, but I can’t exactly quote ten whole first pages here on wordpress!). A post in details about first chapters with examples would just have been far too long and I would have lost readers (pun intended).

      Thanks for stopping by Corra! It was great to meet you too. Glad you’re enjoying yourself here 🙂

  • Hema P.

    Wonderful observations, Rosemary! It definitely helps if we could come up with great first lines and strong hooks! But so many rules, so much pressure in writing! I feel the rules are stacking up as we speak… but at the end of the day, we just have to write what we write, I guess. I’ll be sure to check out that book — thanks for recommending it!

    I love your first line for “Save me a seat” — lots of potential!!

    • Miss Rosemary

      Well said Hema! Soemtimes I think people make the rules, so they can write books on them and sucker desperate, new writers out of their money. Ultimately, you’re right, writing is writing and we do it because we love it.
      Save Me a Seat should be a good one I hope … just haven’t touched it in a while.

  • unabridgedgirl

    My trouble is always the writing the beginning of my story. I know how important the first sentence/paragraph is, and it intimidates me. I have to say, though, that there are a few books that did not grab me on the first sentence, but they grabbed me by the end of the first paragraph:

    Little Bee by Chris Cleave
    The Help by Kathryn Stockett (which is one of my favorite books)
    Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

    M.

    • Miss Rosemary

      This is true. In fact, unless they were EXCELLENT, I don’t remember many first sentences. I just remember the feeling I got from the getgo of the book. For example, one of my favorite series, The Outlander Series by Diana Gabaldon, I started and then reshelved for about a year because I couldn’t getthrough the first chapter. Sometimes it just depends on timing too. And in that case, the author can’t really do much … but she can give it her best shot!

      Don’t be initmidated. Do what some of the movies do: start from the end and work your way forward. No one said you had to write in order.

      And thanks for the book list! I just booked my flight to London for September and I’ll need material!

  • Rowenna

    As regards Bad Sentence #7…I’m actually really curious about Adam and how he’s going to find his way without pants…but probably not in the way that would make me buy a lot of the author’s work.

    I agree that first sentences are important but…it’s also a lot of pressure for a single sentence. Anyone notice how most of those bad sentences were trying waaaay too hard? Like the bratwurst nose one? Maybe the secret isn’t to workshop your first sentence into the ground, but just to let it happen. And if it doesn’t work, delete it and write a new one…that doesn’t involve bratwurst.

    • Miss Rosemary

      I myself happen to like pants very much. Adam is, of course, entitled to his own opinion.
      And well said on the sentences. The pressure sure is on, but that doesn’t mean you have to try overmuch and make yourself loko like a fool.

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