First Impressions

Today is my father’s birthday! Happy birthday, Dad! Since you enjoy good quotes and memorable sentences, this post is right up your alley.

Back in the day, sentences like this were all the rage:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. From A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Don’t get me wrong. That’s an incredible sentence. It ranked number 9 on American Book Review’s list of “100 Best First Lines from Novels.” But with shorter attention spans these days, sentences like the above aren’t as much of a draw. See, there’s a reason why Twitter posts have a 280-character limit. (Though that used to be 140, so maybe things are changing? Anyway, Dickens’ quote is 611 characters with spaces.)

Why am I harping on first sentences? Because we’re told that a reader needs to be interested from the first sentence of a book. As I read in this article, “How to start a novel: First sentences, first paragraphs” (which you can find here):

When starting a novel, you have one goal: To create an inviting entry point into your story.

And your first sentence is that entry point, beckoning a reader to draw near. But it needs to hook the reader. An article by Jeff Vasishta entitled, “Opening Lines: The Most Important Part of Your Story” (written for the Institute for Writers) describes it this way:

A newspaper headline serves one purpose–to make you want to read the article beneath it. The opening sentence in a novel tries to do something similar. It should make you want to read the second sentence.

And the next, according to Mr. Vasishta.

One of my favorite first sentences in a novel comes from Three Times Lucky, a middle grade novel by Sheila Turnage:

Trouble cruised into Tupelo Landing at exactly seven minutes past noon on Wednesday, the third of June, flashing a gold badge and driving a Chevy Impala the color of dirt.

It has verve.

Olive the Ostrich and Babette the Owl have verve though they are not sentences.

It made such a good first impression, I had to read the second sentence, and then the first page. That being good as well, I finished the book.

What about you? What was the last sentence that really drew you into a book? Do you have a favorite first sentence to share in the comments below? If you’ve written a book, how many sentences did you go through before you landed on the sentence that starts your book?

Birthday image from sodahead.com. Photos by L. Marie.

39 thoughts on “First Impressions

  1. I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve never thought about any first sentence in any book. I majored in English in undergrad but I don’t remember any prof ever making us aware of the importance of a first sentence. Of course, now that you write about first sentences here, I’m going to be a hyper aware of them. This is a good thing, so thank you.

  2. Have to admit that I was never drawn in by the first sentence of a book. Never got turned away either because I always figured it wasn’t enough to pass judgement. It is kind of funny that we put so much weight on one sentence. I’m probably in the minority, but that feels like it’s something born out of impatience or a fear of wasting time. Not saying that’s bad either, but it is interesting how we have these kinds of ‘rules’.

    • I also was disturbed at the amount of weight placed on the first sentence. It’s possible that the changing attention spans led to this. I won’t put a book down because of the lack of a catchy first sentence. But I have been swayed to read a book because of one.

      • Dwindling attention spans could be part of it. I’ve even seen people give up because they didn’t like the first word of a book. Wish I was joking there.

      • Only those written by already successful authors? I do think one current issue is that most people won’t stray from the established authors. There’s not as much curiosity and adventure these days. At least in fantasy, which might get rougher after that Amazon LOTR series.

      • I heard about that series. I was shocked that Amazon was going to produce one.

        Yes, I’m hoping for a change from the current narrow focus in publishing.

      • I’m not surprised about it being made so much as the cost. It feels like fantasy isn’t straying far from a handful of authors in terms of broader exposure. With many people only touching a book if it has a movie or tv show, that can cause a problem. I’m hoping I’m wrong though. Be nice if the show comes and stirs interest in fantasy action adventure in general.

      • I love LoTR, but I also was very stunned at the cost.

        I would prefer to read a fantasy book first than watch the movie or show based on it first. I’m weird that way I guess.

      • My guess is that there was a lot of competition to get the series and Amazon pulled a ‘go big or go home’ maneuver.

        I’m the same way. That might be more old school these days.

    • Babette says hi to Howie!

      I won’t get to see my dad today. But I’ll convey the birthday wishes.

      I think a good first paragraph is key, so you’re doing fine!

  3. What a lovely tribute to your “Happy Birthday” Dad. This weekend I had a pleasant surprise when someone tagged me on Facebook to write the first 7 sentences of my memoir in progress. I was shocked that so many people liked it. Like many writers, disparaging shadows fall on the page when I present my own work. Plus, I’ve been at this SO long … years and years!

    What draws me in: book titles and catchy covers, whether or not I know the author’s work, verve. That’s a great word, Marie – VERVE!

    • Thanks, Marian! And how cool that you were able to present some sentences of your memoir. Glad you received some positive feedback. Yes, I get the “disparaging shadows.” We tend to think less of our own work.

      I love the word verve! 😀

  4. I’m not sure who first decided that the first sentence is of the utmost importance . . .

    Most readers, even those with the attention span of a gnat, could manage a paragraph or two before deciding to move on to another book. Plus, those with super short attention spans aren’t apt to pick up a novel in the first place . . . too busy on Twitter. 😀

    That said, one of my favorite first lines is “Marley was dead: to begin with.” A much shorter intro by Dickens. 😀

    • Wow, that is what Lori said. There’s definitely something to the blurb! I’ll usually pick up a book if Stephen King or Neil Gaiman thought highly of it.

  5. Yep, heard about the first sentence draw for years. Personally, I give an author the first paragraph, sometimes the first page before I’ll set it down. However, I do put a little more stock in the first sentence of a book blurb. I think perhaps it’s literary agents and publishers that look for a great first sentence more than a lot of readers. At least from what I’ve seen.

    • Makes sense, Lori. Book blurbs from well-known authors can be a draw.

      I also give some books at least 50-80 pages sometimes. But I quit a book after three pages. I won’t say which one. But that was enough for me.

  6. Hope the “Birthday Boy” has a great day!

    Hmm… apart from the old standby of P&P – It’s a truth universally known, etc., – and the one you’ve quoted, I can’t think of any first lines, so I’m not sure if they really make much impression on me – maybe subliminally. So I checked the first line of the book I’m currently reading…

    “The Melekhov farm was right at the end of Tatarsk village.” Doesn’t sound too promising, but I’m loving the book! (And Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov)

    Next up is a vintage crime, The Red House Mystery by AA Milne (yes, that AA Milne!). It starts: “In the drowsy heat of the summer afternoon the Red House was taking its siesta.” Better, I think…

    • Looking forward to your review of the Milne mystery.

      Yes, the P & P first line is great! I didn’t mention it because it fits in with many first lines of today–short and sweet. I also like, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

      I talked to my dad. Mom was taking him to lunch, so his dad is pretty good. 😀

  7. I don’t know about first sentences. But it has caused me to remember some advice given to my classmates and I by our primary school teacher: When choosing a book to read, to see if you think you will like it read the first paragraph, then a paragraph from the middle of the book and then finally the very last paragraph of the book.
    I thought this terrible advice: spoilers!

  8. Happy birthday to your Dad, Linda! Today is also my son’s birthday, his first birthday as a married man. As far as first sentences, everyone seems to be talking about the first sentence in Emily X.R. Pan’s brand-new THE ASTONISHING COLOR OF AFTER: “My mother is a bird,” and the rest of the paragraph: “This isn’t like some William Faulkner stream-of-consciousness metaphorical crap. My mother. Is literally. A bird.” I really like the narrator’s voice in this first paragraph, and the book is at the top of my TBR pile as a result, but the sentence didn’t pull me away from the book I’m currently reading, Masha Gessen’s The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia.

  9. Happy Birthday wishes to you father! What a thoughtful way to honor it, L. Marie.
    Coming from a time long enough ago, first sentences were drilled into me, especially Dickens’ iconic one, however, I often need to get through the first paragraph if it is long, or the first page. Not that I don’t often hang on, however. I do that, too and am usually happy I did. 🙂

    “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink” from Dodie Smith’s “I’ve Always Lived in a Castle” !

    • Ah! I’m glad for the reminder of that great book, Penny. It’s been ages since I read it.

      I can’t help thinking of another favorite first line: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Ah Tolkien!

  10. The books at the top of my TBR stack:
    Gilead by Marilynne Robinson: “I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old.” (My daughter gave me the book. I wonder if the voice will change as we go along. Should be interesting.)
    Miss Alcott’s E-mail by Kit Bakke: “I was home alone, that rare treat for the working mother, when it occurred to me to write to her. To Louisa May Alcott. Why not?” (Okay, I cheated and gave Kit three sentences. She was a featured speaker at our EPIC Group Writers social yesterday. Very impressive.)

    • Great sentences!
      A college near me is having all of their freshman read Gilead. I’ve never read it! May I need to.

      The Alcott email book sounds really fun!

  11. Pingback: Check This Out: The Mo & Dale Mysteries by Sheila Turnage | El Space–The Blog of L. Marie

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