Writing: Baby’s First Words
So I’ve been reading me some Connie Willis recently. Highly recommend, if you’re a SF/Fantasy fan. I’ve been reading Blackout, and the first sentence of Blackout is–drumroll, please–
Colin tried the door, but it was locked.
This is a great first sentence, and we’re going to talk about why. But first, being me, I’m going to vacillate for a while, give you a lot of probably unnecessary background information, and virulently express my views. Because that’s why you read this blog. You enjoy my vacillating. For instance:
I made three bean salad last night, and it was delicious.
Anyway, to first sentences:
I keep reading the advice, on various writing blogs, that a good first sentence is crucial. That a good first sentences needs to capture the reader’s interest, ensnare them in your story. I take exception to this, on a couple of fronts, which I will list for you here:
1) What the hell does ‘capturing the reader’s interest’ really mean, anyway? This is like the deadest, most nebulous piece of ‘advice’ ever. It’s like telling a child to ‘be good’. And what is good, exactly? I mean, most of us can agree on the ‘thou shalt not kill’ thing, but some of us diverge on how many wives we can have, looking at a neighbor’s oxen, being gay, etc. Erm, back to the subject here. Secondly:
2) I can honestly say, I’ve never stopped reading something after the first damn sentence.
And I am monstrously ADD. I have all the focus of a mouse in a string cheese factory. I circumnavigate tangents and digressions better than Magellan circumnavigated the globe. My entire consciousness–my way of getting work done–is orbital in nature. It has retrograde motherfucking motion. I start off watering the plants. Watering the plants makes me remember, oh shit, I need to scrub out the bathtub before my mother comes to visit. But wait, that shower gel looks pretty empty–didn’t I need some new shower gel? Off to the store to buy shower gel, then–where I see watering cans on clearance and remember the plants. Go home, finish watering the plants. And then I see the sponge on the side of the tub…
You get it. I’m incredibly ADD (and there was one of those digressions, actually). And even I–even I–read something past the first sentence.
Don’t get me wrong, first impressions are important. You want a good first sentence for a good first impression. But is it absolutely the most vital thing in the whole honking story? No. God, no. Because most people will give you a few paragraphs, maybe even a few pages, to prove yourself. And I’ll tell you, personally–while I might read eight of them at once, I rarely put a book down for good. When I do, it’s because it sucks, not because the first sentence sucks. I give you a few chapters to prove yourself before I give up hope. After all, I paid for this crap–I want it to be good. I want you to succeed.
Readers aren’t fish, you can’t snag ’em with a hook and bring ’em up to die slowly and painfully in a tub of ice in your johnboat–or, erm, just trust your brilliant first sentence to do all the work. Your first sentence should be just as good as the rest of your story. Hands down.
But if you want to peak interest in the first sentence–whatever it is that nebulous phrase actually means–the best way to do it is with a first sentence like Ms. Willis’s. Let’s look at it again:
Colin tried the door, but it was locked.
Why does this ‘capture the reader’s interest’?
Because, my dears, it contains conflict. Minor conflict, but conflict nonetheless–we know, from the first sentence, that Colin wants to open this door, but he can’t. It’s not much of a basis for a novel, but as salt and dressing to get you interested, it works well. And, I note, it isn’t overwhelming. Colin tried to save the human race, but it blew itself up anyway would be a little much. You’d shy away from that. Your first sentence is a starting point, after all, and you don’t want to start with the biggest bang in the book. A locked door–that we can take. We know, in four hundred and something pages, that things will escalate beyond a locked door.
And then. As long as we’re discussing ‘capturing interest’, let’s look at the other thing this sentence does:
It leaves us with a question.
Why is that door locked? Why does Colin want to get into this space? It implies, in very few words, conflict and hierarchy, restriction and desire. We don’t know much yet, but we’ve seen conflict and we’ve asked why.
And those are the two things your first sentence should make a reader do. I list, for your easy perusal, what your first sentence should offer:
1) Contains conflict
2) Makes ’em ask WHY.
If you’ve got both these things, then, even if your prose doesn’t move mountains–and there’s nothing special about the language of Ms. Willis’s first sentence–it’ll get the job done.
And that’s all it needs to do.
So quit agonizing over your first sentence. You’ve got, after all, over 50,000 words in which to prove you can write, and if you can’t do it in that length of novel you can’t do it at all. Just introduce conflict and raise some questions and you’ve got a good first sentence.
You’re welcome. Now, off to go do fifty things at more-or-less once.