Tackling the First Sentence

The importance of the first sentence in a body of work, whether a political blog or a novel, can not be overstated. However important, it is very easy to misunderstand the goal of the first sentence. Instead of going on and on about what you should and shouldn’t do, we will learn together by picking apart some of the first sentences of the world’s best storytellers.

Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere
“The night before he went to London, Richard Mayhew was not enjoying himself.”

This sentence tells us about the setting, the main character and what to expect of the narrative. We know the story begins at night, within a half-days travel of London, the outlook of the main character, and that the narrative is in third person and past tense. This is a generic example, but it’s also a fine example of a developed world. Richard Mayhew and the world around him are alive.

Kurt Vonnegut, Harrison Bergeron
“The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal.”

There are many things we don’t know about the story from this first sentence, and yet it tells us more than the previous example. We know it’s set in the future and in past tense, we don’t know who the main character is or what perspective the story is in. But the emphasis on how the world is equal “finally” gives us an idea of the story’s tone, narrative, plot and scope. All in one word.

Italo Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveler
“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler.”

Arguably, the most important goal of a first sentence is to hook the reader, which Italo Calvino does flawlessly. This story, at least in its first chapter, is in second person, and it is about you, the reader, attempting to finish the book. The book itself is infinitely complicated, but the first sentence contains enough information to tell the reader where the work is heading.

Give it a Shot
As a mental excercise, go grab a couple books. One that you have read and one that you don’t know much about. Write down the first sentence from each and see how much information you can glean from the narrative. Hopefully, you’ll have as much fun as I do when I pick up a book.

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2 Responses to Tackling the First Sentence

  1. Sandman says:

    “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” -Neuromancer, William Gibson

    “I am a very old man. How old, I do not know.” – A Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs

    “Midway through this life’s journey I went astray and woke to find myself in a dark wood.” – Inferno, Dante Alighieri

    This is fun! Thanks!

  2. damyantig says:

    I must go pick up a few books, and check this out! An interesting post:)

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