First sentences, are you hooked? These days you have to hook the reader by the very first sentence. We’ve been hearing it a lot lately, pounded into our heads, tattooed into our aura, branded into our hearts.
Okay, if I had just started my book with that last sentence I might have lost you on my superlative drama. One must be careful.
Athol Dickson, author of Lost Mission wrote of first sentences on Novel Journey: “People are funny. And not always funny ha-ha. When Lost Mission hit the shelves last September, a few people told me it was well written as far as that went, but it started off too slowly. I was prepared for any criticism except for a slow start, since the story mentions two miracles in the first four pages alone. (A church bell seems to ring by itself, and a fresco is “not painted by human hands.”) I even tossed in a couple of boys who are nearly burned alive. These folks did admit it “got better” later on, but still, apparently the miracles and near death experience were barely enough to pique their interest.
Maybe I should have burned the boys.
Of course I know a novel has to hook the reader from the very first word these days. Even an Amish romance must be thrilling from the get-go, otherwise the jaded citizenry will wander off to channel surf their countless choices in realty television shows, or “meet” a dozen perverts a minute on Chat Roulette, or even worse, read somebody else’s book. But I did think I had done my duty, hook wise, with two miracles and a couple of burning boys in four pages flat, so color me confused.”
Me too. I’m perplexed. So I did a bit of research on my bookshelves. I chose at random ten books and read their first sentences. Four of them happen to be debut novels but you can’t tell those from the well-knowns. They don’t appear to be trying too hard or feeling too gimmicky. None of them do. Some of these books I haven’t read yet, some I read and liked, some not. Here are ten author’s carefully selected first sentences:
1. They were both working their final shift at Blackjack Pizza that night, although nobody but the two of them realized it was that.—The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb
2. In the year 1919, Edgar’s grandfather, who was born with an extra share of whimsy, bought their land and all the buildings on it from a man he’d never met, a man named Schultz, who in his turn had walked away from a logging team half a decade earlier after seeing the chains on a fully loaded timber sled let go.—debut novel, Edgar Sawtell by David Wrobleewski
3. All those times me and Skip tried to kill his little brother, Donny, were just for fun.—debut novel, Back Roads by Tawni O’Dell
4. In 1972 I was sixteen—young, my father said, to be traveling with him on his diplomatic missions.—debut novel, The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
5. I am a cheerful man, even in the dark, and it’s all thanks to a good Lutheran mother.— Wobegon Boy by Garrison Keillor
6. “We were supposed to meet this morning?” asked Dyer, standing in the shaded portico of Headmaster Wolfe’s residence, the humid Massachusetts air on him like a quilt.—debut novel, The Headmaster Ritual, by Taylor Antrim
7. Last month I read an Associated Press item about a man in Adams, Massachusetts, who, having bought the apartment building where his seventy-four-year-old grandmother has lived for ten years, raised her monthly rent from $96 to $400.—Too Soon to Tell by Calvin Trillin
8. Nine months Landsman’s been flopping at the Hotel Zamenhof without any of his fellow residents managing to get themselves murdered.—The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon
9. I am ninety.—Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
10. In Brooklyn, in a part of Brooklyn that was the last stop on the LL train and a million miles away from Manhattan, a part of Brooklyn—an enclave, almost—composed of modest homes and two-family houses set on lawns the size of postage stamps, out front the occasional plaster-of-paris saint or a birdbath, a short bus ride away from the new paradise known as the Kings County Mall, a part of Brooklyn where the turbulent sixties never quite touched down, but at this point in time, on the cusp of the great age of disco, when this part of Brooklyn would come into its own, as if during the years before it had been aestivating like a mudfish, lying in wait for the blast, for the glitter, the platform shoes, Gloria Gaynor, for doing the hustle, for its day in the sun, this part of Brooklyn was home to Miriam Kessler and her daughter Valentine who was fifteen and three-quarters years old, which is to be neither here nor yet there as far as life is concerned.—An Almost Perfect Moment by Binnie Kirshenbaum
That last one had me typing so long and fast my husband thought I was on fire writing a new book. Not only is that the longest sentence I ever wrote, it was the first time I ever used “aestivating” in a sentence—and it wasn’t even my sentence. Here’s my sentence: My book has been aestivating so long, the mere rapid typing of a super long sentence brought it to surface again, ready for keyboard attention, and quite possibly ready for a new first sentence.
Did any of these first sentences make you want to read more? Burn it? If so which ones? And what is your opinion of hooked-by-the-sentence gimmick trend that is so popular these days?