“It was a dark and stormy night”: First sentence as guide
I am a bibliophage: a devourer of books. However, I am not indiscriminate in my choices and need a way to find good books.
Recommendations from friends, sticking with favorite writers or reading random paragraphs from a book were haphazard methods I tried. And I still ended up with some stinkers.
Then, one day, I picked a book off the library shelf and only read the first sentence. I was wowed! I took the book home and loved it. I tried this a few more times and discovered this formula:
Amazing first sentence = amazing book
Mediocre/bad first sentence = a book not worth the trouble
We’ve all been told to give a book a chance: “Keep trying. It gets better. I promise.” I’m here to say “No, it won’t.” If the beginning of a book is bad, it won’t get any better. I promise.
The first sentence of a book will tell you without fail how you will feel about the entire book. Yes, whether a sentence is good or bad is subjective. But that’s the point – if you like the first sentence then you will like the book. Guaranteed. Still, there are some generalities that hold true:
Good First Sentences
A good first sentence gets you curious:
“It began with my father not wanting to see the Last Rabbit and ended up with my being eaten by a carnivorous plant.” Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde.
What’s going on? The “Last Rabbit”? Eaten by a plant? I’ve GOTTA know what happens next!
A good first sentence sets the scene:
“Hack first heard about Jennifer Government at the water-cooler.” Jennifer Government by Max Barry
I’m envisioning a typical gray, cube-filled office but with names like “Jennifer Government” and “Hack”, I know this story won’t be typical.
A good first sentence says a lot with very little:
“Once. I only went to bed with her once.” Mefisto in Onyx by Harlan Ellison.
That’s regret, but for what? Sleeping with her only once, or at all? I need to know!
A good first sentence prevents you from leaving the book because you must have your questions answered. Anything less isn’t worth your time.
Mediocre/Bad First Sentences
A mediocre/bad first sentence annoys:
“The morning had dawned clear and cold, with a crispness that hinted at the end of summer.” Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin
What’s with the “had” after “morning”? It’s unnecessary. It breaks up the flow of the story. And that’s not the last time that happens. Annoying! Gah!
A mediocre/bad first sentence bores:
“It was the Alaska State Fair, August, 2008.” Going Rogue, Sarah Palin
Regardless of your political leanings, that…sentence… is… boring. Full-bore “meh“.
A mediocre/bad first sentence (this one is a classic) defeats itself:
“It was a dark and stormy night, the rain fell in torrents – except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” Paul Clifford, Edward George Bulwer-Lytton
I stopped caring at “except”.
Try it! Go to your bookshelf right now and pick out a book. Read the first sentence. How do you feel? Does it match how you feel about the book? Was the book great? Your favorite? Or was it truly awful and a waste of a weekend?
What’s your favorite first sentence? What’s the worst you’ve ever read?
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