Saturday, October 7, 2017

Catching The Reader With A First Sentence by Mark Bacon

Where to begin? I agonized over this question when I wrote my first mystery novel. For my first sentence should I go for something literary, something clever, a play on words? Trained as a journalist and a nonfiction writer for years, I was tempted to write a first sentence that summarized the story or the theme. And I did. Then came my second novel—the just-released Desert Kill Switch—and I decided I needed a new way to start.

One of the most significant ways that writing fiction has influenced my recreational reading is that I pay closer attention to first sentences. Sometimes they can put me off a novel immediately. Or draw me in. I’ve become a student of first sentences.

When writers and editors put together lists of best first sentences, the work of classic novelists tends to cluster at the top, Austen, Melville, Dickens, Orwell. They provide excellent examples, but are they suitable for a murder mystery? “Call me Lyle,” (one of my main characters) is not memorable, except perhaps as a riff on Melville. “It was the best of times for Lyle.” Nope.

A first sentence is like a first impression when you meet someone. Does a person’s verbal greeting or looks attract your attention and encourage conversation? Like someone going out with a highly touted blind date, a writer is eager to make a good impression.

One of the best first-sentence writers around, Stephen King, offered this advice in The Atlantic Magazine in July, 2013. “There are all sorts of theories and ideas about what constitutes a good opening line. It’s a tricky thing….But there’s one thing I’m sure about. An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”

Anne R. Allen, mystery writer and co-author of How to be a Writer in the E-Age: A Self-Help Guide, agrees. “On that first page, we have only a few lines to grab the reader and keep her from putting the book back on the shelf. We have to present an exciting hook…but not overwhelm [readers] with too much information.”

One item of information that may be extraneous in first sentences is weather. It’s become clich├ęd thanks to the familiar “dark and stormy night” penned by British novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton 187 years ago. “Never open a book with the weather,” is the oft quoted line from Elmore Leonard. Yet years before Leonard offered his advice, Raymond Chandler used weather in the first sentence of The Big Sleep. And I think he got away with it:

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid-October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.

Mystery writer Lilian Jackson Braun used weather to begin The Cat Who Tailed a Thief in 1997. “It was a strange winter in Moose County, 400 miles north of everywhere.”

Adding to my confusion, I discovered this advice Ernest Hemingway wrote to John Dos Passos in a letter* in March 1932: “Remember to get the weather in your god damned book—weather is very important.”

Can’t ignore Hemingway. What to do? I turned for help with my first sentence to noir master James M. Cain. He used a short but telling sentence to begin his famous depression era, The Postman Always Rings Twice. With nine words the narrator tells us he’s a less-than-first-class traveler and perhaps disreputable, too. “They threw me off the hay truck about noon.”

Sometimes unusual or intriguing sentences are best to grab your interest. Ross Macdonald, one of the best stylists of the detective genre, started his 1954 Find a Victim this way: “He was the ghastliest hitchhiker who ever thumbed me.”

Since most mystery, crime and detective stories involve murder, you could begin with that. “Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to kill him.” That’s how Graham Greene began his dark 1938 tale, Brighton Rock.

Ultimately, I abandoned the weather, decided a reference to murder could wait for the second paragraph of my novel, and went with an intriguing first sentence that conveyed action.

“Lyle Deming braked his Mustang hard and aimed for the sandy shoulder of the desert road.”

Ernest Hemingway Selected Letters 1917-1961, Carlos Baker, editor, Scribner Classics, 2003; original copyright 1981 The Ernest Hemingway Foundation, Inc. and Carlos Baker.

Mark S. Bacon began his career as a southern California newspaper police reporter, one of his crime stories becoming key evidence in a murder case that spanned decades.

After working for two newspapers, he moved to advertising and marketing when he became a copywriter for Knott’s Berry Farm, the large theme park down the road from Disneyland. Experience working at Knott’s formed part of the inspiration for his creation of Nostalgia City theme park. 

He taught journalism as a member of the adjunct faculty at Cal Poly University – Pomona, University of Redlands, and the University of Nevada – Reno. Bacon is the author of business books and his articles on travel and other topics have appeared in newspapers from the Washington Post to the San Antonio Express News. Most recently he was a correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle. 


Margaret S. Hamilton said...

I try not to obsess over the first line. It's easier in short stories, when I use dialogue or place the protagonist in the middle of the action.

Lots of good examples! My favorite remains Julia Spencer-Fleming's "It was one hell of a night to throw away a baby" from In the Bleak Midwinter.

Jim Jackson said...

While I do spend considerable time working on my first sentences, my theory is that as long as the reader moves on to sentence #2, I've succeeded in my opening-line task. Then, if the reader continues from paragraph one to paragraph two, I've crossed the second reader hurdle. The next crucial step comes at the page flip from the first page to the second. I think I've captured my potential reader's attention if they follow the story on the turn from page two to page three.

~ Jim

Shari Randall said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shari Randall said...

Thank you, Mark, very enjoyable blog.
There's a great Facebook Group called First Line Monday where readers share the first line of the book they're reading that week. It's a lot of fun, instructive, and puts lots of books on my TBR pile.

Gloria Alden said...

I enjoyed reading this, Mark. I just started the tenth book in my series, and I'm going to go back to see if the first line is likely to catch the reader's attention and make them want to go on. My critique partners liked the beginning and the end of it and couldn't wait for me to

KM Rockwood said...

First sentences are like most things in writing--if you know the "rules" and how they work, you are in a position to decide whether, in this particular instance, the rules should be applied or broken.

As Jim says, if the first sentence leads to readers going on to the second, it's a successful first sentence.

Mark S. Bacon said...

Jim, I think your comment also applies to turning the page from the end of chapter 1 to the next chapter. Maybe someone should write a post about last sentences in chapters.

Jim Jackson said...

Mark -- good point and one that I cover in my course when I talk about revising scene-by-scene. I suggest authors look at the opening and closing of each scene to make sure of the introduction and at the end leaving a compelling reason for the reader to flip the page.

~ Jim