Saturday, February 5, 2011

First Lines to First Paragraphs: NOW would you read on?

A big thank you to hope, BECKY, and Lisa Ricard Claro for your comments on yesterday's post. I think we all agree that none of these lines was particularly sparkling. Nor, for that matter, was the opening line of the wildly popular winner of Nathan Bransford's first paragraph contest: "I was born during an electrical storm."
What these first sentences all have in common, however, is that they are SHORT.

Now, I'm sure many wonderful stories start with LONG sentences. (I'm just too lazy to do the research just now.) But what a short sentence does is anchor the reader. A character ("Priscilla;" "Edith Goodnough") is named; or an "I" narrator comes on board. "Unsolved mysteries," is of course from Agatha Christie, the start of The Thirteen Problems, starring Miss Marple. Agatha Christie gets away with this because she's well, Agatha Christie. She's a "brand" and readers pick up her books expecting to solve puzzles written in (now) old-fashioned prose.

Here's a list of the other openers, and who wrote them.

1. "Priscilla lived in a studio apartment." Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins
2. "Unsolved mysteries." The Thirteen Problems by Agatha Christie
3. Edith Goodnough isn't in the country any more." The Tie That Binds by Kent Haruf
4. "I haven't laid eyes on the island in several years." Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane
5. "It's hard being left behind." The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Once you know the author and the title of the book you make some assumptions. ("O yeah, I love Tom Robbins. He uses language so inventively, and his plots are always a riot" or "Lehane writes amazing, dark suspense. Just what I'm in the mood for.") An unpublished writer doesn't have this built-in boost. And I think that's why, judging from the first paragraph flood in the Bransford contest, people are trying too hard. The thought must be "I have to write something spectacular to catch an agent's jaded eyes," so there's violence, explosions, deaths, and blood, blood, blood.

I'm ending this post with the first paragraph of Kent Haruf's "The Tie That Binds." I think you'll agree that, from that rather flat first sentence, things quickly get a lot more interesting. I've inserted in italics what went through my mind as I read it first.

"Edith Goodnough isn't in the country anymore. She's in town now, in the hospital, lying there in that white bed with a needle stuck in the back of one hand (poor thing) and a man standing guard (hey, why's that? Is someone out to get her? Now I'm kinda worried and intrigued) in the hallway outside her room. She'll be eighty years old this week: a clean beautiful white-haired woman who never in her life weighed as much as 115 pounds, and has weighed a lot less than that since New Year's Eve. (Why? What happened on New Year's Eve?) Still, the sheriff and the lawyers expect her to get well enough for them to sit her up in a wheelchair and then drive her across town to the courthouse to begin the trial. When that happens, if that happens, (you mean she might die?) I don't know they will go so far as to put handcuffs on her. (What!? Handcuffs? I thought she was the victim. Now it looks like she's the accused. But what has she done?") Bud Sealy, the sheriff, has turned out to be a son of a bitch, all right, but I still can't see him putting handcuffs on a woman like Edith Goodnough."

So what do I like about this? There's a mystery, and the incongrous thing about a petite nearly 80-year-old having done something bad. Also, it's just so nicely written. Notice how the paragraph begins and ends with Edith's name. But all done without massive pyrotechnics, without a writer jumping up and down and saying "pay attention to me."

I'm hooked by Kent Haruf. How about you?

(P.s. I've just read an excellent article in this month's The Writer, "In Search of the Perfect Sentence," by Janet Tarasovic. Well worth a read. Here's a link to her blog.)


  1. I love Haruf
    and I loved the winner's first line actually...first thing I asked myself in a nano second is hmmm.why is this important..
    and then the payoff with his sister's missing him....Oh my goodness... I wanted to read more

  2. Thanks, suz. You are astute reader as well as a skilled writer.

    Perhaps instead of "particularly sparkling" I should have written "rather quiet." The point I was trying to make is that none of these first lines come on strong with bells and whistles. I think that may be my problem with openings: I come on too strong.

  3. Funny, the only one I recognized was Lehane...and only because I can still hear David Strathairn narrating that story and it just drew me in!

    You're right...what in the world did an 80 year old do? And that's how you hook me...leaving me wanting the rest of the story. Nicely done!


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