First Sentences: Introduction

The accumulated editorial wisdom suggests that the first sentence of a novel should be carefully crafted. As a beginning blogger and novelist I have decided that one way to help both myself and other writers is to devote a set of posts that investigates published first sentences. Though the first sentence doesn’t need to be the entire “hook” that catches a reader it is an important part of it.

K.M. Weiland in her new book Structuring the Novel (which I will do a review on soon) indicates that the first sentence needs to at least create some questions in the reader’s mind. Ideally it should show a character in action in a setting. She provides an example from one of her professors: “Hitler invades Poland.” (Actually it is type set like this: “Hitler. Invades. Poland.”) but I turned it back into a single sentence. So I want to explore a lot of first sentences.

My method is going to be to snag books, lots of books, many of which I have never read and probably will never read wherever I can find them (my own library, friend’s homes, bookstores and libraries to start with). Then when I have copied the first sentence and perhaps the first paragraph I will start writing blog posts to analyze and investigate that first sentence.

Here is the first sentence for Richard Paul Evan’s book

James Kier looked back and forth between the newspaper headline and the photograph of himself, not sure he should laugh or call his attorney.

The sentence fulfills at least 2 of Weiland’s suggested guidelines. First we have the character James Kier and second he is both reading and “looking back forth” in the newspaper. We don’t really get a direct look at the setting but combined with his first name and his quick willingness to consider legal action we can at least speculate that he is in North America.

We know a bit more about James as well. He has some level of importance in his community since there is a headline line story about him along with a photo. He has “his attorney” which leads us to suspect that he is probably reasonably wealthy since most people in his situation would have thought something like, “Should I call an attorney?” Apparently James has enough legal business to need a regular, ongoing relationship with a lawyer.

We know from the title of the book that the time frame is sometime reasonably close to Christmas so at least within the last quarter of the year. Most importantly James is trying to decide between laughing or angrily calling his attorney so there is an emotional charge even though we don’t know what the content of the newspaper article is all about. We can guess that the content is in some way negative since you don’t call your attorney if the paper has written a positive article about you.

What do you think of the sentence? Do you want to keep reading? Has Evan’s created enough curiosity that you will read the first paragraph and perhaps the first page?

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