article discussing the purpose of a first sentence

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Small Publishers Association of North America

Issue 1/2008

“Why” IS Your Story. Use It Wisely

This spring, I judged sixteen entries in three separate romance contests. The one consistent weakness I found—and that this is a weakness is strictly my personal opinion— was the author’s desire to convey backstory in the early pages of her manuscript, a persistent desire to highlight why the main character (but primarily the heroine) was doing whatever it was she was doing when the story began. I pointed out that divulging internal thought in the midst of life and death, real-time action proved not only a distraction, but slowed the pacing of the story. I suggested the information be passed to the reader later, perhaps using a more dynamic method of conveyance, such as dialogue between the protagonist and another individual who was not already aware of the backstory. The why and/or whys of the story fill out the sagging middle. They are the pieces of the mystery that keep the reader reading after the action of the initial scenes is resolved. Uncovering and resolving those why and whys makes the story.

So, imagine my dismay recently when I read a short commentary on fiction “beginnings,” which cited a writing professor telling his students the author should tell the reader everything he needed to know in the first sentence. The author of the piece qualified that statement by specifying “everything the reader needed to know as to not confuse the reader. I’ve also heard stated, from other sources, that the first sentence of a story is the most important sentence the author will write.

I don’t know if y’all are interpreting what is being said the same way I am, but those two teachers are actually providing the writer a great deal of space between the lines, while at the same time spouting writing dogma, which should be common sense to begin with. First off, you don’t have to explain every secret in the first sentence, first page, or even the first, second or third chapters to keep from “confusing” the reader, and how is a beginning writer to interpret “tell the reader everything he needs to know in the first sentence?” Everything he needs to know to continue to read is a far cry from everything there is to know.

So, let’s go back to the basics, the four w’s: Who, what, where… and why. Why? Phooey, I say! That tell-everything-in-the-first-sentence mentor included why among the criteria to divulge, but Dwight Swain in Techniques of the Selling Writer did not. I wouldn’t argue those first three questions being answered sometime during the very beginning of a story, but why should be restricted to the why of the moment, not backstory. Since the opening action is more than likely based on something that happened before the story begins—that or the writer is starting his story too soon—why address why early on? And as for the remaining three w’s being answered in the first sentence? Hogwash. Just for kicks, I went back and read the first sentences of some classics of popular fiction:

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. Margaret Mitchell’s GONE WITH THE WIND. Who and what. A charming Scarlett, but as we all know, Scarlett wasn’t always charming, and it wasn’t charm that brought her through the Old South to the New. It was backbone and the pure determination that she would not be beat.
Sitting beside the road, watching the wagon mount the hill toward her, Lena thinks, ‘I have come from Alabama: a fur piece. William Faulkner’s LIGHT IN AUGUST. Who and where. Well, sorta “where.” She’s on a road, and she’s no longer in Alabama—and whatever time period she’s in, folks still use wagons.
On the 24th of February, 1815, the Marseilles port lookouts signaled that the three-master Pharaoh was coming up the harbor. Alexander Dumas’ THE COUNT OF MONTE CHRISTO. When and where. Oh my Gosh! Are there really five w’s? No, no, the “when and where” are setting—they count as one.
Half-way down a by-street of one of our New England towns stands a rusty wooden house, with seven acutely peaked gables, facing towards various points of the compass, and a huge, clustered chimney in the midst. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s HOUSE OF THE SEVEN GABLES. A generalized “where” and a what. Have y’all ever wondered how the wooden house rusted? Must have been a 19th-century thing.
The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. Stephen Crane’s THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE. Where and what. I liked this beginning line a lot.
My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. Charles Dickens’ GREAT EXPECTATIONS. Who.
In that pleasant district of merry England which is watered by the river Don, there extended in ancient times a large forest, covering the greater part of the beautiful hills and valleys which lie between Sheffield and the pleasant town of Doncaster. Sir Walter Scott’s IVANHOE. Where. Have you ever read, or tried to read Scott? I tried to read WAVERLY once. Did a credible job actually, considering what I was up against and the fact I was still in high school. Maybe I should try again, ya think, being older and wiser? Hmmm! Looking at that first sentence of IVANHOE, I don’t think so.
Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. Okay, are you “oriented” yet? Once it was a “when”—the present—but that was about a century ago now. That’s the first line of D.H. Lawrence’s LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER. Now I did get past the first sentence of that one, years ago. Made it all the way to the very last word as a matter of fact. It was a pretty good book. But if I’d “literally” had to know everything I needed to know in the first sentence, I wouldn’t have. That brings me back to the real purpose (in my humble opinion) of the “first sentence.” It should be interesting enough to tempt the reader to read the next one. And let’s face it, if someone has already taken the time to pick up the book, read the back, and opened the thing to the first page, that first sentence doesn’t have to be that interesting for him to read the next one—all the way to the end of the first paragraph, at least.

Let me move on:

A sharp clip-clop of iron-shot hoofs deadened and died away, and clouds of yellow dust drifted from under the cottonwoods out over the sage. Zane Grey’s RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE. What and maybe a where. A shoed horse—meaning someone is on him, listening and looking—probably somewhere out west.
This first chapter head is annotated: Glasgow. Halfway down the ugly cobbled street, he paused to look back. Frank Slaughter’s IN A DARK GARDEN. Where. Slaughter uses the ambiguous “he” until the third paragraph where he identifies the hero of the story as Julian Chisholm. For shame!
About fifteen miles above New Orleans the river goes very slowly. Here is the prologue to Frank Yerby’s THE FOXES OF HARROW. The reader is oriented to “where.” He is fifteen miles north of New Orleans on the (obviously) Mississippi River. Now let us continue past that first line, and even past the first paragraph:

It has broadened out there until it is almost a sea and the water is yellow with the mud of half a continent. Where the sun strikes it, it is golden.

At night the water talks with dark voices. It goes whispering down past the Natchez Trace, past Ormand until it reaches the old D’Estrehan place, and flows by that singing. But when it passes Harrow, it is silent. Men say that it is because the river is so broad here that you cannot hear the sound of the waters. Scientists say it is the shape of the channel. But it is as broad by Ormand and D’Estrehan. Yet before Harrow in the night it is silent.

And I was sold, or would have been if I’d been in the market to buy a book. Actually, that title was already a family heirloom. I read THE FOXES OF HARROW when I was fourteen, and of all the books I’ve read, I’m not sure I can remember a single sentence word for word, but I’ve always remembered that the river is silent when it passes Harrow. Not the first sentence, not even the first paragraph, but the second. Sure, Frank Yerby could have cut that first , visually descriptive paragraph and started with At night the water talks with dark voices. I’d have loved that, too, but he’d have been even less descriptive as to “where.” He might have changed “water” to “river” so the reader would know he was talking about a river. The reference to the Natchez Trace would have hinted at the Mississippi, but is it worth worrying about? Either way, Yerby hooked the reader early on. Whether it was with the “mud of half a continent,” “dark voices,” or “before Harrow in the night it is silent,” I don’t know. Could have been any or all, depending on the reader, but all that first sentence said was “read on.” It was enough; the reader did. An entire nation did—Hollywood did, too.

And finishing up with first sentences. How about the greatest of them all, or so I’m told?

Call me Ishmael. Herman Melville’s MOBY DICK. Who.

Please someone, tell me why--and, no, the pun's not intended. Nothing against Melville or the story itself. I don’t even have anything particular against that first sentence, except for its honored title as the “greatest ever.” Shoot, it doesn’t pique my interest nearly as much as the comically maligned It was a dark and stormy night. Who or what? Your pick. Personally, I’m a mood person, maybe that’s why the river’s dark voices and its sudden silence at Harrow Plantation—and the promise of “why,” then yet to be answered—appealed to me so.

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