Monday, October 12, 2009

Opening Sentences and the Suckiness Thereof

"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit."

One of the things many authors (yours truly included) have problems with is the first sentence. You the writer have to get the audience interested and engaged from the first ten words (or five, or twenty, etc) of the novel and keep them there for the rest of the story. Anyone who's a reader of fantasy will probably recognize the quoted sentence above (Tolkien's "The Hobbit" for the uniniated). This opening sentence is beautiful because of the questions it forces you to ask: What is a hobbit? Why does it live in a hole in the ground?

Tolkien goes on to answer both questions in the paragraphs following the opening, as any good writer should when presenting a statement that makes readers go "wait, what?" And that's what an effective opening should do -- force the reader to ask questions that will keep them reading as opposed to ones that make them go "umm ... no" and put the book down.

There's reams of text out there on how to write an opening sentence, why they're important, etc., etc., etc. It's enough to make a writer's head spin. Not to mention that we're the ones who have to compose the brilliant five, ten, twenty words that'll keep our readers reading. Writing opening sentences is hard. I go through at least half a dozen versions for each story before I'm happy (occasionally more depending on the premise) and sometimes end up with the first option as the best (which is maddening). SON OF MAGIC will probably end up with twenty different opening sentences through all its revisions when all is said and done. I have no idea if CALLARION AT NIGHT will get any other versions, but it's possible.

And then, once you've perfected the opening? You have to take the same level of scrutiny to every word on every page. Although, as I said in the comments on my latest query over at PQS, I do love me a challenge. Guess that's why we're writers, huh?

Note: In case you're curious, this thought process came up after reading the comments on my sample pages. I'm currently making some changes based off that thread, so thank you very much everyone who took the time to offer their views.


Susan R. Mills said...

I agree. The first sentence is very important, but then again, so is every sentence that follows. Imagine how great our writing would be if we focused as much on every sentence as we do the first. Thanks for the reminder.

Natalie said...

To tell you the truth I don't even know what my opening sentence is! It's nothing special I can tell you that. I should probably look at it again. :)

Joshua McCune said...

I always like the more atmospheric (and I ain't talkin' bout weather) openings.

Your post also makes me think of one about endings (and how the quality frequently suffers b/c we're so busy trying to perfect the opening chapters and, perhaps, slip up a bit by the end).

L. T. Host said...

I LOVE first sentences. There's something wrong with me, haha. But I love the opportunity to draw people in with that first line.

Hopefully I'm good at it.

fairyhedgehog said...

My all time first line is: "It was the day my grandmother exploded" (The Crow Road by Ian Banks)

fairyhedgehog said...

My all time favourite first line, I meant to say.

Joshua McCune said...

Camus' THE STRANGER had a pretty sweet opening, IMO, though it definitely depends on translation a bit.

Anita Saxena said...

I have changed my opening sentences OVER and OVER and OVER.
A summer or two ago, I went to the bookstore and read the first sentence of a plethora of books- convinced there was some kind of secret to a good first sentence. My studies showed that there isn't.