Despite being in grad school, I’m still reading books at a fairly brisk pace these days (not as brisk as last year when I wasn’t in school, but brisker than when I was in college). Lately, I’ve been more excited than usual each time I get to start a new book (maybe because I think things like If I finish making a handout summarizing this infant language acquisition study tonight, I can start that book I borrowed from the library two weeks ago!), and so I’ve been especially struck by how delicious a well-crafted opening sentence is. I decided to take a closer look at some first sentences by rounding up all the books in my apartment (excluding ones like Phonetic Data Analysis and Everyday Thai Cooking), collecting their first sentences, and deconstructing them. Much has already been said about the importance of a fantastic opening line, but rather than abstractly pondering the ingredients of a good first sentence or musing about whether the perfect first sentence is actually necessary, I just wanted to wax lyrical about some examples. Without further ado, here are the opening lines of the books I currently have around:
“The night breathed through the apartment like a dark animal.” Reckless Cornelia Funke Trans. Oliver Latsch
I really like this. The personification (zoomorphism, technically?) makes the night seem alive and sentient, which heightens the sense of dread and foreboding that nighttime already evokes. The idea of the night breathing like an animal gives it a creepy, lurking presence. The “dark” might be redundant since night is, well, dark, but it contributes all its connotations of fear, evil, and danger. There’s also something claustrophobic about the sentence as a whole. This opening line immediately thrusts you into this shadowy apartment where the night might be stalking you, or at least watching you.
“He still wasn’t back.” Fearless Cornelia Funke Trans. Oliver Latsch
The opening line of this companion to Reckless is less compelling to me than the preceding example, but it still raises questions, which is one of the best things for a first sentence to do. You want to know who “he” is, and who is waiting for him. The “still” implies that whoever is waiting has been waiting for a long time. There’s a sense that something might have gone wrong, which creates tension and makes you feel the character’s worry.
“I remember being born.” Seraphina Rachel Hartman
Like the previous one, this sentence immediately raises questions: What kind of person remembers their own birth? It’s powerful in its unexpectedness and its brevity. The book opens at the most fundamental of beginnings, suggesting the start of a bildungsroman or an epic, but it does so in a unique way since the narrator is professing awareness of the experience of her birth. Moreover, there’s something special about the way it’s put: “being born.” Not “the day I was born” or “when I was born” or “my birth” but “being born.” It’s punchy, its progressive aspect sounds unusual, and it emphasizes the actual moment of entry into the world.
“I don’t feel the presence of God here.” Charm & Strange Stephanie Kuehn
This is the only first sentence from a book I haven’t actually read yet, so these are the only impressions that won’t be colored by my knowledge of all that comes after the opening line. I like this first line. I want to know where “here” is. Like in Seraphina, the first person POV is established immediately, only this beginning is grounded in a specific moment and place. Right away, I’m “there” with the narrator even though I don’t yet know where “there” is. The pronouncement in this first sentence is bleak and speaks of barrenness, isolation, despair, perhaps hiddenness. Also, mention of “the presence of God” lends this line a sense of the cosmic or the spiritual that makes it rather grand.
“You think it’s so easy to change yourself.” This Song Will Save Your Life Leila Sales
This opening really deserves to have its second sentence included too: “You think it’s so easy, but it’s not.” This first sentence is attention-getting in the way it directly addresses the reader. The narrator is challenging what she assumes is a widely held belief and promises a story that proves why this belief is wrong. The tone can be interpreted as bitter, defiant, resigned, or world-weary, but it’s the bluntness of these statements that really draws me in. Why is the narrator so sure of these things?
“It’s Sunday afternoon, and the phonograph player is jumping like a clown in a parade the way Jolene and I are dancing.” Flygirl Sherri L. Smith
This opening sentence feels more ordinary to me. It sets the scene and the mood and introduces a couple of characters. The mention of the phonograph player is very effective in revealing the time period, and the slightly odd turn of phrase from the simile to “the way Jolene and I are dancing” gives the narrator a distinctive voice, but otherwise there’s nothing too striking or unexpected here. However, when you consider the fact that this first sentence comes right after the section title December 1941, it takes on a new meaning. The section title creates dramatic irony because the reader knows what happened in the U.S. in December of 1941, but the carefree girls dancing at the beginning of the book don’t.
“Blue Sargent had forgotten how many times she’d been told that she would kill her true love.” The Raven Boys Maggie Stiefvater
This is a masterful example of opening with a sentence so specific and unusual the reader has to know more. First off, knowing that one is supposed to kill one’s true love sounds just a bit troubling, not to mention dramatic. Secondly, the fact that this character can no longer remember how many times she’s been told this means it’s become ordinary to her. What must it be like to be accustomed to people telling you you’re going to kill your true love? Who is this character surrounded by? Who are the people telling her this? And how do they know? Thirdly, I have a weakness for first sentences that include an unusual character name in full. Blue Sargent qualifies. In short, I love this first sentence. Bonus points for invoking the classic themes of death and true love with a twist.
“A secret is a strange thing.” The Dream Thieves Maggie Stiefvater
This first sentence is very different from that of The Raven Boys. It’s gone to the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of specificity. This is a generalization, though the fact that it’s about secrets, which are inherently mysterious and compelling, still makes it intriguing. This opening line is like This Song Will Save Your Life‘s in the way it makes an observation about life, detached from any details of setting or character. This sort of first sentence works when the observation is striking enough to make the reader want to know more. Generalizations can also be good for raising questions. What is strange about a secret?
“I just got back from Celia Forester’s funeral.” Rose Under Fire Elizabeth Wein
Speaking of raising questions, this is another first sentence that does just that! Who is Celia Forester? How did she die? And what was the narrator’s relationship to her? We actually do know a little more because this opening sentences comes after the heading “Notes for an Accident Report,” and we can tell by the date and place at the top of the page that this is a journal entry. But I still want to know more. The sentence has a certain heaviness, due to its subject matter. I have the impression that the writer is sad and weary and needs to unburden herself (she certainly gets straight to the point), and I want to know what burdens she’s carrying.
So there they are, the first sentences of all nine novels in my apartment! Maybe next I’ll trace the evolution of the first sentence of Sparkers through its many drafts… Actually, though, in a departure from my regular schedule, I’ll be back tomorrow with something a little bit different. Until then!