Writing: Baby’s First Words


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.

You’re welcome.

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.


7 thoughts on “Writing: Baby’s First Words

  1. I hadn’t thought this over before. I just accepted what They told me. First sentence has to be killer, They said. Killer. This one? I’d ask. Nope, not killer, They replied. Killer. It must be.

    Question: The ADD? Do you use routines to deal with it?

    1. Well, now you know. Don’t listen to Them . 😛

      And as to ADDness–I’ve worked out a weird sort of circular system to help with it. My life is very routine dependent, but my work isn’t, and that’s where I run into trouble a lot of the time. I try to just keep stuff in rotation–usually, by the fourth or fifth thing, something happens that brings me back to the first, and I just knock ’em off on the wheel that way. I also leave little reminders for myself: if I don’t finish some paperwork, I leave the unfinished sheet where I’ll see it, etc. So far I’ve gotten by with little damage to myself and/or others. College was a royal bitch though, I don’t mind saying.

      1. I had some marriage therapy a few years back, and after talking to both of us a session or two, the therapist asks my wife to leave the room. Then she starts asking me questions, which were spot on, about how I did in school. And how I approach things. And how I get things done and don’t get things done. After about 5-6 questions, and then she says “Okay, you do this and that and this and that and so on.” And it’s still spot on. She asks, “were you ever diagnosed with ADD or ADHD?” Me: “Noooooooo. Why?” Turns out she says we could test me to find out for sure but it sounded like I was ADD, and I’m a big boy and can research it myself if I like, and I could tell my wife if I wanted but if I didn’t want to I didn’t have to.

        The addiction side to it (videogames) is very very hard for me. Yeah, quit whining and just put it down. In the meantime, I’m like most adults who never had a diagnosis, and you figure out stuff to cope with it, and maybe you don’t, and you’re just a broken adult. This would have been useful to know back in, say, 1st grade, when I was reading the stupid modules which were all laminated and you were supposed to answer the questions about what you just read. I read through all of them– loved the stories, had no problem reading them– but saw no point in doing the questions.

        When I’m focused, it’s million dollar work. But the focus keeps changing, and it’s easily bored with some tasks. Other tasks (sorting things? That one I love love love) not so much.

      2. I hear you. Oh, buddy, I hear you.

        I found out when I started having trouble in college…got diagnosed first as Bipolar I, then Bipolar II, then, finally, as ADD (which, with the way I function, makes a lot more sense). So yeah, I agree, it would’ve been nice to know when I was a kid. Don’t know that it ever wrecked my life the way it does some people, but it would’ve been nice to know why I could never concentrate enough to take notes or pay much attention in class. On the other hand, if I’d been able to concentrate better, I probably wouldn’t be able to draw nearly as well, so. 😛

        I tend to do best at stuff where it’s all right to let my attention wander, and maybe do something else at the same time (sorting laundry’s a good one for me too, I also like pen and ink drawing for the same reason). I never had the problems some folks have with reading either, but I think it’s because I’m a pretty fast reader, and usually get done with a story before I get bored with it. It’s always been tough for me to do something I didn’t want to do, and I’d always assumed I was just bullheaded in the extreme. It’s nice to finally have something to blame it on, I suppose. 😛

      3. Yeah, but I can see by your comment you aren’t actually blaming it. It helps to understand how you tick so you can look at what other people have done with the same set of problems and figure out what works best.

        Probably NOT having an open browser nearby tops the list for ADD people trying to do book.

  2. This is possibly the most valuable bit of advice I’ve read on the topic, and I also fully agree with it. So much of the advice I heard on starting out a story, novel, whatever has put me in mind of one of those ridiculous extreme marriage proposals. All you really need is a ring, a willing partner and maybe a nice dinner or something. A book is sort of the same isn’t it? You just need to have the reader asking what happens next? – and be laying the ground work for the reader to actually care about it within the first few pages.

    1. Yeah, folks really like to make it sound like it’s sink or swim and nothing in between. I usually have a little giggle at it, because my goodness, if I’M reading past the first sentence, so is pretty much everybody else.

      Also, I gotta say. I think first sentences suffer from all the pressure. I’ve read a few books where it felt like someone was trying to cram a textbook into the first sentence, only to lighten up abruptly for the next few pages–you could almost FEEL the writer taking a huge breath of fresh air after that first period. 😛 Just keep ’em reading!

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