What Makes a Great First Sentence?
Alice McDermott on the Importance of Starting a Story with Confidence
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Let’s start first with first sentences.
It seems to me that a good deal of time is spent in writing workshops talking about first sentences. Which is, I believe, as it should be.
You need only consider how many novels and stories can be identified by their first sentence alone in order to appreciate the importance—the burden and the opportunity—of a first line. Proportionately speaking, I don’t know that there’s another art form that can be so readily recognized by so small a sample.
(Music lovers are welcome to object, since I hear in my head already the first notes of “Rhapsody in Blue” or West Side Story or Beethoven’s Fifth.)
Call me Ishmael.
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo . . .
As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.
Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.
I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron.
Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.
In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.
John McPhee has said that the lead of an article serves as a searchlight that shines down into the body of a piece—which is a good enough description for a work of nonfiction, where story is already formed, has already happened, and needs only to be reported—but the first sentence of a piece of fiction serves as much more than searchlight or hook or even lure to the reluctant reader. The first sentence in a work of fiction places the first limitation on the utterly limitless world of the author’s imagination. Before that first sentence is composed, anything is possible. The fiction writer is free to write about anything at all—we are, after all, just making this stuff up—in any voice at all: a child’s, a dog’s, a dead man’s, a god in his heaven, even in the voice of the author herself.
The blank page is nothing less than the wondrous realm of infinite possibilities, and the first words we place on it are nothing less than, well, a sentence, the prison kind, a confinement of all that roving, beautiful, undefined promise into a particular story bound by time and place (four prison walls and a floor and ceiling) and voice (of the prisoner, of the other inmates) and rules (our jailor), narrative rules and grammatical rules, rules of logic and composition, experience and sense, rules that we must attend to even if—most particularly if—we set out to break them.
The novelist Gloria Naylor called the first sentence of a piece of fiction the story’s DNA, for out of it, she said, arises the second sentence and the third, the fourth—all the way, I would add, to the very last. For if the writer’s any good, the first sentence will strike a chord, a tone, a mood, a music that will reverberate throughout the story or the novel, resounding in all kinds of ways through every sentence, all the way to the end.
“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself” leads us some two hundred pages later to:
“I will come,” said Peter, but he sat on for a moment. What is this terror? What is this ecstasy? he thought to himself. What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement?
It is Clarissa, he said.
For there she was.
For there she was being the last sentence of the novel whose first sentence begins with Mrs. Dalloway and ends with herself.
For there she was. Mrs. Dalloway. Herself.
And what possible novel could conclude with the earnest, high-blown language of this singular consciousness:
April 26: Mother is putting my new secondhand clothes in order. She prays now, she says, that I may learn in my own life and away from home and friends what the heart is and what it feels. Amen. So be it. Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.
April 27: Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.
A conclusion the novel could not have reached if it had not begun by staking its claim to language, to perspective, to its own music in a first line such as:
Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo . . .
Perspective, voice, rhythm—first person, third person, limited, omniscient—character, subject, and, yes, story all begin to be established, memorably or not, in the first sentence.
No wonder we spend some time in fiction-writing workshops talking about first sentences.
And yet, in spite of all that conversation, I can offer you no formula for what makes a first sentence a good first sentence. And I’d be suspicious of anyone who claims to have one. But here’s something I have learned: More often than not the first sentence in the draft of the story under consideration in a writing workshop is not the best sentence to begin with.
In fact, more often than not, the simple request that workshop readers look through a given piece and find a better first sentence results in all kinds of marvelous choices, many of them found on page 2, or on page 15, or even somewhere in the last paragraph.
Why is this?
For the novice fiction writer, it’s often just a case of holding back, holding on to the good stuff, the good writing, the fine detail, the authentic voice—the very thing that first drove the writer to the blank page—until the reader has paid his dues or demonstrated her devotion by wading through the meandering descriptions or the flat dialogue or the tedious philosophies the writer is determined to unload at the start.
We writers are all—let’s face it—lonely souls with mountainous egos as delicate as white cliffs of baby powder, and we all harbor the belief that any reader who dares to ask, a mere twenty pages in, “Why should I care about this?” or “What are you talking about?” is a reader clearly unworthy of our gifts.
(I recently witnessed this phenomenon—call it the insecure writer’s mask of disdain—at a crowded literary festival, where the young author of a celebrated first novel was asked by a reader, an older woman, if the confusion she felt at the beginning of his book, trying to keep all of his characters straight, was somehow what he intended the reader to feel. After an uncomfortable moment of frigid silence, the author coolly replied, “I think your confusion says more about you as a reader than it does about me as a writer.” Humiliating the questioner, insulting the audience—made up mostly of older women—and demonstrating to all that precocious literary talent yields no immunity from being a jerk.)
Tedious openings may well be an author’s way of gauging a reader’s unquestioning devotion, but more often, I think, the novice holds back out of fear that if he gets right to it, right to the good part—to the thing that drove him to the blank page to begin with—then the novel will die in paragraph two, perhaps even sentence two, because there’s nothing more to say.When I consider those memorable first lines in literature, from Tolstoy’s to Tillie Olsen’s, the single thing they all seem to have in common is authority.
But first sentences also fail when the novice, or the not-so-novice, begins the story or the novel with an overdetermined plan—a plot outline with Roman numerals, large caps and small caps, or a detailed synopsis that accounts for every connection and every turn—so that the first written sentence of the actual piece has no more energy, no more music, than line one of a daily to-do list.
To paraphrase Henry James, such a writer begins by merely filling out a form, and so the language of the first line—the story’s DNA—is serviceable at best, lackadaisical at worst. It sounds shopworn because it is shopworn—it has been handled over and over again in the author’s mind—even if it is fresh to the page.
In my experience, those far superior first sentences buried on page 2 or 7 or 18 of a work-in-progress are sentences that have appeared without pre-planning, sentences written according to no formula, no scheme—sentences that are formed not in moments of determined inspiration or the huffing pursuit of brilliance, but in the pen-to-paper, fingers-to-the-keyboard (pickaxe to hard rock?) daily work of getting a story told. The kind of sentence that surprises and delights even the writer herself when it is called to her attention as a possible, a preferable, beginning.
When I consider those memorable first lines in literature, from Tolstoy’s to Tillie Olsen’s, the single thing they all seem to have in common is authority—a word, in this context, perhaps easier to define by what it is not than by precisely what it is.
Call me Ishmael, for instance, is not, I suppose you could say I’ve gone by a lot of different names in my life, after all, I was a small, shy kid, and I was picked on a lot, but out of all the names and nicknames I’ve had over the course of my twenty-five years, I’d probably prefer that you refer to me by the one that you might think sounds somewhat old-fashioned or even, I don’t know, kind of biblical, like my mother was some kind of Evangelical or something, which she wasn’t, she was agnostic, although she did read the Bible when she couldn’t find anything else to read . . .
If there is an unwritten preamble to Call me Ishmael, it is something like Sit down, shut up, listen.
Authority. What all these memorable first sentences convey, in all their variety, is confidence. No equivocation. No building up to the good stuff.
Listen, they say. I have a story to tell. I know how to tell it. Trust me.
Excerpted from What About the Baby? Some Thoughts on the Art of Fiction by Alice McDermott. Copyright © 2021 by Alice McDermott. Excerpted with permission by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, a Division of Macmillan Publishers.