What if you could only write one sentence?







Earlier this week, I posted a piece about famous first paragraphs.  That exercise got me to thinking about how many times I have heard people opine at writing workshops about how essential that first paragraph is.

Okay.  It’s important.  But is it that important?

Close on the heels of those who extol the absolute necessity of a strong first paragraph is the subset of writing gurus who say that it is actually the first sentence that determines if a book will live or die.  That puts a lot of pressure on us poor writers, who may have slaved for a year to craft the 75,000 words of a complete manuscript and still face that mandate about sentence one.

If a writer re-writes sentence one fifty times, does it get better each time?  I doubt it.  It may go the other way.

But let’s spot the pundits the dictum that the first sentence is the most important one in the book.

Here are ten real first sentences.  Which is your favorite?  Which do you like the least? I’ll tell you who wrote them at the end.

1.  “Teddy Daniels’s father had been a fisherman.”

2.  “On the pleasant shore of the French Riviera, about half way between Marseilles and the Italian border, stands a large, proud, rose-colored hotel.”

3.  “Molly kissed her husband goodbye and closed the front door of her colonial home, listening to the silence that echoed in her ears.”

4. “Suicide bombers are easy to spot.”

5. “TOM!”

6.  “The Otis elevator climbing the south pillar of the Eiffel Tower was overflowing with tourists.”

7.  “People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although, I will say it did not happen every day.”

8.  “As she gazed out the bay window in her bedroom, Mary McAllister knew this night would be her last.”

9.  “Sophia doesn’t register the sound when the truck pulls into her driveway.”

10.  “There was blood everywhere.”

Can you imagine what the folks leading the discussion at the conference would say about number 5?  It is a one-word quotation punctuated with an exclamation point.  It is also how Mark Twain began THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER.

The others are: 1. Dennis Lehane, SHUTTER ISLAND, 2. F. Scott Fitzgerald, TENDER IS THE NIGHT,  3. Melissa Foster, CHASING AMANDA,  4. Lee Child, GONE TOMORROW, 6. Dan Brown, THE LOST SYMBOL, 7. Charles Portis, TRUE GRIT (the picture at the top of the post is from the recent re-make of the movie),  8. Darcie Chan, THE MILL RIVER RECLUSE, 9. Barbara Taylor Sissel, THE VOLUNTEER, and 10. Fingers Murphy, FOLLOW THE MONEY.

Some of these authors are household names.  Others are less well-known.  But the question is if you didn’t know which of them were famous writers, could you tell from the first sentence in the book?

What do you think?




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  • Only first line I recognized was from the novel True Grit. Not sure I agree with those who say the first sentence is the most important of a story.

  • Caleb Pirtle

    What would I do if I could only write one sentence? Probably write it over and over and over again and still worry that it wasn’t right. Those first few words, that first sentence, can persuade me to buy a book or keep looking. Authors should care more about that first sentence than the next 10,000 sentences. If it’s not right, readers won’t waste their time on the other 10,000. Great post. Every author should take it to heart.

  • I can’t speak for others, but Americans want instant gratification, and I’ll admit that I’ve tossed off a book after reading only the first sentence. I suppose that’s why I rewrite my first sentences more than any other.

    • Jack, I suppose the hardest part for the author is to know which first sentence is the best one he has written for a particular book. My approach usually is to finish the complete draft and then take a close look at that first sentence to see if it captures the essence of the book in such a way as to draw the reader in. I think it is a critical first step.

  • Jiji

    I ‘m no great writer, but I’m a great reader. I’ll give the writer the first page, but if he hasn’t grabbed me by then, I’m on my way to the next book.

    • Jiji, I doubt that you are alone in your approach. I have to admit that I make up my mind about a book pretty quickly, too. Thanks for taking the time to comment. Of the ones listed above, number 4 is probably the one that grabbed me the hardest.

  • Christina Carson

    No, and a very interesting point you raise. But I have had too many reading experiences of being deceived by the first sentence, paragraph and chapter. So I keep going until what ever may starts to bother me about the book becomes flagrant. I guess it’s because I don’t expect life to better at the start than at the middle or end, and I give writers the opportunity to develop a story akin to life as I experience it.

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