Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Another Opening for Another Show

How long do you spend looking at a book in the bookstore before deciding to buy it? If you're anything like me, you read the back, and if that looks good, then you flip it open and see how the first page looks. But how far do you get down that page? For a lot of books, I'm guessing the answer is not too far.

That's why first line are important. A good first line can be essential in hooking a reader. But what makes a good first line?

To try to answer that question, I'd like to turn to some examples.

"For fifty years, the bourgeoisie of Point-l'Evaque envied Mrs. Aubain her servant Felicity." -- The Simple Heart by Gustave Flaubert. ( I did the translation myself, so feel free to take issue with it, if you like.) What I really like about this line is how broad it is. It really gives one a feeling for the scope of the novel. In one sentence (actually, one paragraph) it fits in 50 years and the entire bourgeois population of a town. That's a pretty impressive. Not to mention that it managed to fit the two major characters, their relationship to each other and the outside world, the setting, and the span of the book all into 14 words. Concise.

"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. This one sentence illustrates the two central themes in the book: fortune and the role of same in achieving marriage. Plus, it gives a hint of the voice of the text. It's sort of ironic, considering the it was women seeking husbands and preferably those with fortune, whereas the single man in possession of a good fortune wasn't in want of much. Again, a lot of information in a comparatively short sentence.

"Today, Mama died." -- The Stranger by Albert Camus. (Again, my translation. Fault it, if you choose.) What I like about the sentence is its simplicity. It's short, three words. And yet it tells you the instigating force for the whole book. Moreover, I love the contrast between the sort of detached manner in which it relays the information with the word choice. Camus used the French word Maman which is informal, unlike the 'Mother' that many older translations use. I find it a very interesting contrast, the use of the informal, indicating closeness and love, with the emotional detachment of this sentence and the rest of the paragraph.

So, it seems, the common thread amongst good first sentences is that they fit in a lot of info as short a sentence as possible whilst still being interesting. The first sentence should be in accord with the voice and style of the rest of the book.

What are some of your favorite first sentences from books you've read? What do you think makes them good?


  1. "It was the day my grandmother exploded." Iain Banks, The Crow Road. How could you fault it? It certainly give you an idea of the themes and tone of the book.

  2. I think first sentences can make the difference whether someone buys a book. I also think they are darn hard to write! :)

  3. fairy -- Wow, that certainly is an evocative sentence.

    Susan -- True. I never feel like I can start writing without it, and it's hard to think of a good one.

  4. First sentences stress me out! Although I will say that I'll skim the first page before making my decision on whether to buy a book or not. And I almost always do my research before hand. Usually I'm looking for something specific, so a book really has to catch my eye with a great cover for an impulse buy.

    Does that make me shallow or thorough? Maybe both?

  5. LnL -- I think a large part of book buying is the "shallow" part. No one has time to skim the first page of every book in the store. So you look for your 'type,' narrow it down to the good looking ones, and skim those. I think it's the nature of the world.