Earlier this week, I reviewed a moving book called THE PROMISED WORLD by Lisa Tucker. I think Ms. Tucker is a very talented writer, and I am just thrilled that she has written something special for my blog. Since she is a local Pennsylvania author, I am hoping to "meet" her someday; but in the meantime, I can enjoy this wonderful guest post that she wrote about the importance of first lines in a book!
In the Beginning
I love thinking about what makes a great first sentence of a novel. Whenever I teach writing, I always start by asking my class to consider this question. We analyze a variety of first sentences: some from classic novels—“Call me Ishmael.” (Moby-Dick); “Marley was dead: to begin with.” (A Christmas Carol)—and some from more recent novels—“124 WAS SPITEFUL.” (Beloved); “My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. “ (The Lovely Bones).
The short, obvious, answer is that a good first sentence makes you want to read the second sentence. But why do you want to keep reading? I think it’s because a good first sentence makes you ask questions. For instance: Why does this person want us to call him Ishmael? Is that his real name? Who is Marley? Why does Susie say her name was Susie? It sounds almost like she’s dead, but then how can she be talking to us? Why is 124 spiteful, and what the heck is 124 anyway?
People are naturally curious; they want to find out about other people. And fiction is a psychological form: it can tell us the deepest truths about a character’s life. One way to think about a novel, then, is as a “secret well told,” and we ask questions because we want to know what the secret is. But it has to be well told, because if we don’t care about the characters, then we ultimately won’t care about the secret. If we sense that the secret is false, because the author uses the wrong setting or fake dialogue, we’ll lose interest and toss the book aside.
I always feel like my own first sentences appear out of nowhere. The first sentence of The Promised World came to me in pretty much the same form as it is in the published book: “While millions of people watched her brother die, Lila sat in her quiet office at the university, working on a paper about Herman Melville's later years.” I didn’t know who Lila was or who her brother was. I didn’t how or why he died. I didn’t know why millions of people saw his death and Lila didn’t. I had lots of questions, just like a reader would. So I wrote sentence after sentence, following these characters around, listening to their heartbreaking secrets—and hoping I could do justice to them.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about first sentences. Do you have a favorite? Have you ever picked up a book where the very first sentence made you decide not to continue reading?
Thanks to Booking Mama for letting me do this guest blog.