I spent last week judging a first sentence contest on my friend’s blog, The Story Teller’s Scroll. There were many interesting entries. I was curious about what followed some of those first lines. It made me realize how obsessed writers have become about ‘hooking’ an editor’s attention.
At writer’s conferences, we used to discuss how important the first chapter was. We outlined what we had to accomplish within those first precious pages. Just when we thought we had it down, we heard about ‘first pages.’
Yes, it was no longer the first chapter. The slush pile was sky high and editors had to be engaged by the end of the first page. Start with action. Don’t have any backstory. Start at a decisive moment. We rewrote first pages to perfection only to find by the time we had finished, the window of opportunity had shrunk even more—to the first paragraph and then to the first sentence.
Auditions have been trimmed from a chapter to a line. What pressure we now put on that first poor sentence. It has to convey your voice, the mood of the story, your character’s voice, something exciting or interesting, a hook, foreshadowing, anything and everything. As obedient writers, we try to cram it all in.
In some of the entries I judged, sentences staggered under the burden placed upon them. Clauses were tacked at the beginnings and endings. Commas ruled the day. Sentences strained to the breaking point, as they tried to accommodate a paragraph’s worth of information. Many were perfectly good sentences when they started out. I trimmed them and removed the cluttering clauses. Underneath I found strong, solid sentences that invited me to read on. ‘Read on,’ they said. ‘There are other sentences to follow.’
Other openings dumped me right in the middle of the story. I had no bearings. I felt as if I had been thrown in a pool and told to sink or swim. Did I find that interesting? I’d like to say I did, but actually, it had the opposite effect. I wanted to pull back and orient myself, instead of plunging ahead.
So what is a writer to do? I opened two of my favorite books tonight and read the first sentences.
‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ – The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien
‘There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.’ —Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
The sentences seem plain, unassuming. They don’t leap off the page and grab you by the throat. But they do invite you to read on. Curl up with these comfortable words. There is more to come.
Perhaps that is what we writers need to remember. Our first sentence shouldn’t be a blaring TV commercial or a high-pressure salesman. Our first sentence is an invitation. Come in dear reader; spend time in my world.