Quite a while ago (at least a year), I wrote a blog post on why Show Don’t Tell Is a Lie. It remains today one of my top ten most read posts. But recently, I’ve started to wonder how many do’s and don’t’s I learned in college that I now actually disagree with.
And one of the emphasis I heard from many of my English teachers was the importance of the first sentence. Whether you are writing a novel, short story, or argumentative essay, the first sentence serves one main purpose: the pull the reader in. But what does that mean and does a fixation on the first sentence possibly harm the rest of the work?
For the purpose of this post, I will be focusing more on the usage of the first sentence of novels, as opposed to shorter works like short stories and essays. Though, I have always had the firm belief that all the same rules apply for both, just in a more condensed version. For example, short stories should have an inciting incident, rising action, climax, and resolution, just as a novel does (though not all short stories follow this theory of mine). Essays are another cup of tea, however, as they are meant to explain a topic or argue a point.
Infamous First Lines
What are some of your favorite first lines of novels? Here’s a few famous ones.
George Orwell, 1984
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
I could keep going on forever, but these three demonstrate my point aptly.
Now, what do these have in common? Well, they certainly all tell different information. Orwell’s presents us a strange world, telling us this is not our own, as clocks do not strike thirteen on our modern earth. In Austen’s she is stating a philosophical fact which may or may not be disproven in the following story. Faulkner’s makes us ask the simple question, “What is hitting?”
All of them do very different things, but what they all do is make us ask a question.
This is the point of a first sentence, I have been told many times. To make the reader want to read onward to answer that question. To understand why such a statement is made or what happens next.
But It’s Just One Sentence?
Here’s my problem with fixating on the first sentence. The average novel is made up of between 60,000 to 120,000 words. The average sentence contains 15-20 words. If you do that math, that’s between 3,000 to 8,000 sentences per book.
So my question is: how important can one sentence out of 8,000 be?
Why do so many writing teachers drill into our heads that we must create that perfect first sentence when we then have to worry about 7,999 more sentences before we finish our novel.
Of course the first sentence can be memorable and impactful, but just like the importance of show, don’t tell, it’s not everything.
I knew many writers in college who were working on novels, but who never got past the first chapter because they were constantly worrying about capturing that first impression a reader has to a book.
In fact, I try to never worry about my first line until I’m on the third or fourth full draft. Why? Because the beginning is just part of the story.
I have read a lot…probably too much and I don’t mean to stop any time soon. In my years of reading, you don’t know how many times I have started a truly interesting book to find that that first sentence is the highlight of the story and everything goes downhill from there.
Instead of focusing only on the first sentence, a writer should focus more on the rest of the story. I always say, work from big too small (every writer is different, of course, and some writers might work well in a different way). Understand your big story before you worry about the first sentence.
Remember that, at the end of the day, a reader rarely remembers a first sentence, but they will always remember a great story.
As so many of my readers are avid novel readers, I’m curious what your thoughts are on this topic. I know that publishers and teachers put such emphasis on the first sentence, but for me the first sentence isn’t near the most important part of any novel, but I’d like to hear what you think. Let me know your viewpoint down in the comments, follow my blog for more musings and, as always,
Best wishes in your life full of adventure,