That First Sentence. That First Page.

I just taught my first day in a brand new semester, and I feel somewhat disoriented and disheveled, a bit anxious. I drive to work at a new time, the sun glinting off the horizon. I wander the hallway in search of 299A, which does not appear in the list of possible rooms on the maps to the building. That’s exciting. Perhaps I’ll be teaching in an alternate universe this period. I do find it after all and search the faces of new students, wondering how this semester will turn out.

But the beginning of a novel is supposed to create the opposite feeling. The beginning is supposed to pull the reader in, get them hooked and curious. It’s supposed to orient them to your world and characters, but not give away too much too quickly.

That first sentence is supposed to hook that literary agent into signing you up as the next genius or blockbuster writer. It’s supposed to sell the editor, who will sell it to her publishing house, who will take out all the stops and roll out a huge marketing campaign to sell your brilliant book which of course lives up to that first sentence, so then you can make millions and retire to write in your dream house in that dream setting.

No pressure, really.

Once I went to a workshop where an editor read your first page and commented.

Turns out I still had a lot to learn.

The first line I remembered off the top of my head was Charles Dickens:  “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” (It doesn’t stop there.) Sometimes good first lines break punctuation rules.

Or Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself,” a line I quote to students to illustrate the obscurity of the modernists.

I don’t really have an absolute favorite. There are so many good ones.

From Ms. Harris:  “I knew my brother would turn into a panther before he did.” Or “’Caucasian vampires should never wear white,’ the television announcer intoned.”

From Hugh Howey:  “The children were playing while Holston climbed to his death; he could hear them squealing as only happy children do.”

From Craig Johnson:  “I wanna know what Katrina Walks Nice did to get kicked out of a joint like this for sixty-one days.”

This website lists their 100 best first lines. Melville tops the list with “Call me Ishmael.”

There used to be a worst first sentence contest that I would read out to my students, the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. Edward George Bulwer-Lytton wrote what is widely considered the worst first sentence ever, “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” (With such a long name, you know he had to write a long sentence.)

And yet this same sentence appears as number 22 on the best first lines website. Go figure.

What’s your worst revising experience with a first sentence or first page? Or your worst rejection or editor/agent response?

What’s your favorite first sentence? Favorite worst first line?

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Author: Theresa Crater

Award-winning author Theresa Crater brings ancient temples, lost civilizations and secret societies back to life in her visionary fiction. In The Star Family, a Gothic mansion holds a secret spiritual group and a 400-year-old ritual that must be completed to save the day. The shadow government search for ancient Atlantean weapons in the fabled Hall of Records in Under the Stone Paw and fight to control ancient crystals sunk beneath the sea in Beneath the Hallowed Hill. Her short stories explore ancient myth brought into the present day. The most recent include “The Judgment of Osiris” and “Bringing the Waters.” Theresa has also published poetry and a baker’s dozen of literary criticism. Currently, she teaches writing and British lit in Denver.

11 thoughts on “That First Sentence. That First Page.”

  1. “To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband’s dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching upon the floor.” Deanna Raybourn

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  2. I’m so happy you made it to your class! And back out again, too. You know, I never knew the whole Bulwer-Lytton famous first sentence. I’d only ever heard “It was a dark and stormy night.” To be honest, I kind of liked it. But then, I’m a big Snoopy fan. 🙂 I’m glad you quoted it in its entirety. It is quite horrid in that context.

    I don’t know that I have a favorite first sentence. I’m usually so busy gulping down the book that it doesn’t register. I love the examples you’ve chosen, especially Hugh Howey’s. The image of death and children’s laughter is haunting.

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  3. It took me a boatload of revisions and cutting chapters to get to my first line on my novel:

    “Another boyfriend pissed off at me over a dead body.”

    But this is one of my favorite first few paragraphs from a newspaper story I wrote:

    WALNUT CREEK – Chris Hoyle was sitting at her desk in the five-story Wells Fargo building, looking out the window Thursday morning, when she was startled by a man falling right past her window.

    “His head was down, his feet were up, and he came whizzing by screaming,” said Hoyle, who works for Pac 10 Properties.

    Hoyle ran outside where a man was sitting on a low, brick wall.

    “Is everyone all right down here? I just saw a man fall off the roof,” she asked.

    “Yeah, that would be me,” an uninjured Ken Larsen told her.

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  4. Yes, no pressure at all on that first sentence. 🙂 I usually don’t worry too much about mine. Sometimes people will suggest moving a later sentence first, but I’ve never had a visceral, negative reaction to any of my firsts. Of course, I’ve never pitched anything to an agent or editor either (not yet at least). I think the first line of Hank Phillippi Ryan’s latest, THE WRONG GIRL, is really good. “Jane, I don’t think she’s my mother.”

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  5. “It was one hell of a night to throw away a baby.” – Julia Spencer-Fleming

    As for my favorite first line I’ve written? The one that got me my agent: “Funny fact: Human flesh sears just as easily as lamb.”

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  6. I can’t help but think of Sue Grafton’s first line(s) in A is for Alibi: “My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private investigator, licensed by the state of California. I’m twice-divorced, no kids. The day before yesterday I killed someone and the fact weighs heavily on my mind…”

    And then there’s Janet Evanovich’s One For The Money: “There are some men who enter a woman’s life and screw it up forever.” Both first(ish) lines set up what go on to be very successful series, and the info in these first lines really does frame what happens in the next 20 or so books. That’s impressive!

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  7. Mary–ROFL! Great one!
    Donna–I sort of like that “dark and stormy night” sentence, too, especially as he gets into detail on the wind. Glad it made the best list, too.
    Kristi–OMG! I’m hooked. What happened?
    Sarah–Great ones!
    Diane–We can always count of Grafton & Evanovich for some good ones. Thanks.

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  8. From Margaret Atwood’s THE PENELOPIAD: “Now that I’m dead I know everything.”

    (Which is perfection. But then I love it even more because of what follows: “This is what I wished would happen, but like so many of my wishes it failed to come true. I only know a few factoids that I didn’t know before.”

    What a great post! (And I loved reading the ones in the comments, too!)

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  9. I’m late to this particular party, but I had such fun reading this post–and all the great comments! The first line in my (only) published work is: “The darkness forgives much.” I love Sue Grafton, Craig Johnson, Julia Spencer-Fleming–they have so many wonderful first lines. Kristi! Wow!

    Theresa, great post!

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