I’ve been revising my novel and turning over some classic writing advice. The importance of the first sentence has been thrust upon most writers, but I don’t think that notion is exactly correct. It is rare that I have opened a book, read a single sentence and decided if it wasn’t for me. I think the first page is important as a whole, and more specifically the first paragraph. The scene and the tone need to be set within this short margin to place the reader in both a mind-frame and in a setting. They can look around in that brief moment, decide if where they are placed is interesting or intriguing, and either close the book or turn the page.
To illustrate this I want to take a glimpse at a few of my favourite books. First, A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway. Perhaps an unconventional choice as this is bibliographical but I admire Hemingway’s prose and his ability to move a story along. The first sentence is this:
Then there was the bad weather.
What the hell, right? We jump into this book halfway through a conversation. Given no context, we do not know where we are, only that there is something, then there is weather. But let us read a little further.
Then there was the bad weather. It would come in one day when the fall was over. We would have to shut the windows in the night against the rain and the cold wind would strip the leaves from the trees in the Place Contrescarpe. The leaves lay sodden in the rain and the wind drove the rain against the big green autobus at the terminal and the Café des Amateurs was crowded and the windows misted over from the heat and the smoke inside.
Now, a picture is painted. We understand that we are joining this story in the damp, cold early-winter of Paris. The first sentence is not so powerful on its own, but ushers us into a scene. However, we are made to feel like outsiders, and throughout this story we look in at the life of Hemingway like spies. The story does not start evenly or cleanly for us, for we are intruders into these years of his life.
Secondly, let us look at Watership Down by Richard Adams. A famous work, to be sure. The first line alone:
The primroses were over.
Were they indeed? Another short introduction to the work that does not mean much to us. It even sounds a little like the small-talk that introduced us to Hemingway’s book. But what comes after?
The primroses were over. Towards the edge of the wood, where the ground became open and sloped down to an old fence and a brambly ditch beyond, only a few fading patches of pale yellow still showed among the dog’s mercury and oak-tree roots. On the other rise of the fence, the upper part of the field was full of rabbit-holes.
Not the entire paragraph but enough to illustrate the point. Picking up this book, the reader is expecting a story about rabbits. This goes hand-in-hand with nature and plants, for as we see later in the book, these flowers and plants are essential to life for the protagonists. If you don’t enjoy reading a story with strong pastoral imagery throughout then you are given fair warning here that the landscape is integral to the tale.
Now, another old favourite, Julie of the Wolves by Jean George. The first sentence:
Miyax pushed back the hood of her sealskin parka and looked at the Arctic sun.
This sentence is interesting but it does not really grip you. It does, however, give you a sense of place – think of the other two above (bad weather, primroses). But reading further:
Miyax pushed back the hood of her sealskin parka and looked at the Arctic sun. It was a yellow disc in a lime-green sky, the colors of six o’clock in the evening and the time when the wolves awoke. Quietly she put down her cooking pot and crept to the top of a dome-shaped frost heave, one of the many earth buckles that rise and fall in the crackling cold of the Arctic winter. Lying on her stomach, she looked across a vast lawn of grass and moss and focused her attention on the wolves she had come upon two sleeps ago. They were wagging their tails as they awoke and saw each other.
The context we are given here is interesting because we are shown to be entering two societies that most readers are unfamiliar with. Life in the Arctic is foreign to most people, and how to live among that climate and landscape is an unknown. Secondly we are given the society of wolves, apparently in their natural habitat. We’re not sure why this girl is outdoors watching these animals, but the circumstances we are shown are interesting and make us ask questions. The character is outside in the Arctic winter, and there are wolves. If these two things do not interest you then the story as a whole will not hold much of your interest.
The important thing about these introductory statements is that they give the reader a sense of where they are located in the story, and a hint of what is to come. That doesn’t mean that the main action, nor even the characters, are introduced. In A Moveable Feast we are in Paris in the rain – the story is about the realities of living in the city. In Watership Down we are shown the ground, the flowers, and the rabbit holes – we are shown the perspective of rabbits, and this is the space we will occupy throughout the story.
This is not to say that the first sentence is not important. This is where the author has deliberately chosen to welcome you into their story. There must be a reason for it. Looking at our examples, we see a seed of each story’s plot in each line: the weather dictates Hemingway’s behaviour; the flowers are a major part of the rabbits’ perspectives; the Arctic and warmth are Julie’s challenges. We are given that nugget of information in the first line, and then that seed is planted in the following sentences. The context in which the sentence sits is important. It is here that a reader decides if they want to watch the story grow.