First Sentences

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Jess Walter wrote and rewrote the first sentence of Beautiful Ruins “at least 500 times.”(1) It took Lance Marcum twelve hours to write the first sentence of The Cottonmouth Club.(2) First sentences are that important.

In order to study what makes a good opening, I dug up some popular horror novels, some I haven’t read and some I have. I swear it’s like digging up beloved family members from the graveyard: glad to see them again, goose bumps when I take a closer look. Anyway, these are horror novel first lines that I find appealing (warning, some language):

The author establishes an eerie atmosphere:

  • Huge raindrops hit Adrienne’s exposed arms and face as her mother carried her out of the porch’s shelter and down the groaning wooden steps. The Haunting of Ashburn House by Darcy Coates.
  • The cold rode the wind as a phantom, flowing down from the white-capped Wyvern Mountains. Shadow Witch by J. Thorn and Dan Padavona.
  • It rained like we were a splatter of bird shit God was trying to hose off his deck. What the Hell Did I Just Read? By David Wong. (Eerie and irreverent!)
  • A damp breeze pushes the rotting, translucent curtains to the side. The Dark Man by Desmond Doane.
  • Wind, urgent and powerful, slapped the pane like a wet hand. The Stone Flowers by Nora O’Keeffe.

We learn in the first sentence that something’s very wrong:

  • “Poor, poor thing,” said my mom. Poor Things by Daniel Barnett.
  • Eileen couldn’t hear the bird chatter anymore. Hunted by Darcy Coates.
  • It was an unmarked car, just some nondescript American sedan a few years old, but the blackwall tires and the three men inside gave it away for what it was. The Outsider by Stephen King. (A little clunky for my tastes, but it still works to let the reader know something bad is up.)
  • “What the hell are you doing?” Gilchrist by Christian Galacar.
  • I forget everything between footsteps. The 7.5 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton. (Good thing I knew it was horror by the title/cover because this first line would work well for a blissful romance, too.)
  • I’m the last man on Earth, a fucking holographic recording, actually. Naraka by Alessandro Manzetti.

Dread:

  • “It’s going to happen in three minutes.” 314 by A.R. Wise.
  • On the day of the Starland Amusement Park disaster, the one that would send the minor resort town of Conch Beach into its slow death spiral and destroy his family, Carter was only a week away from his twelfth birthday. Inferno Park by JL Bryan.
  • Suicide Forest is real. Suicide Forest by Jeremy Bates.
  • “Death is a part of life,” Jon said. The Demonic by Lee Mountford. (By itself, just a pithy statement. But paired with the bleak image on the book’s cover, it works as the opening for this horror novel.)
  • Bryony Adams was the type of girl who got murdered. Pretty Little Dead Girls by Mercedes M. Yardley.

During Nanowrimo, I can’t spend twelve hours getting the first sentence right. After November is over, I can go back and fuss with the first sentence . . . and all the rest of them as well. Anyway, this is how I started my Nano project:

Catherine Donovan was standing at her father-in-law’s bedside during last rites when the tip of her tongue fell off.

And then I kept typing.

1. “Bookmarks: Jack Black will star in a movie based on Jess Walter’s novel,” by Jeff Baker. https://www.oregonlive.com/books/index.ssf/2012/06/bookmarks_jack_black_will_star.html.
2. “Author Speaks to Students About Writing His First Novel,” by Mark Bliss. https://www.semissourian.com/story/1171095.html.

*The book I’m reading in the feature image is Fatal Agreements by Ashley Fontainne. It’s a Southern Gothic, suspense novel but without an actual ghost. It’s a breath-holding, fun read!

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23 thoughts on “First Sentences

  1. My favourite opening line: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. From A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

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    1. I had to read A Tale of Two Cities when I was in ninth or tenth grade. The story line was too advanced for me. I didn’t have the life experience to really understand the book. But even then, I could appreciate Dickens’ opening sentence, its parallelism and rhythm, and I thought, Wow. Thanks for commenting, Roberta!

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  2. It was a dark and stormy night. Your research on these opening sentences shows how much better we can do than Snoopy’s eternal first sentence from Charlie Brown. Great research. Hope the novel progresses well.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. My brain went black on a first sentence after reading these. I’ll admit, the first sentence has to make me feel or “see” something. Fatal Agreements was so good. I’ve read many of Ashley’s books and enjoyed all of them.

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  4. First sentences are hard. When my editor and I were working on my book she reminded me the first 30 pages have the be my best but most of all the first sentence has to pull them in. I found my first sentence in a commercial of all things. It was some off beat line that caught my ear. I wrote it down, played around with it and made it my own. Be aware that first sentence can come out of nowhere.

    Here is a first sentence that is a goal of mine. First off, I did not like the book. Wasn’t my thing, even though I love King’s books, but the first sentence was the best I ever read:

    The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

    The entire novel is told in one sentence. You don’t need to read anymore. It is the most complete sentence for a book I have ever read and it was so good it made me buy the book. That’s how powerful a first sentence is. If you can tell the story in one sentence you have a chance of hooking the reader.

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    1. Very insightful, thank you! That’s funny about the commercial. Sometimes I get art ideas from commercials because they are often full of bold colors and different perspectives. (I dabble in watercolor.) I’m glad you stopped by, Bryan!

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  5. Awesome, Priscilla. Those examples were perfect and some of them gave me such chills, especially King and Yardley. Yikes! And yours is an attention grabber. I didn’t pay much attention to first sentences when I started writing, but give them MUCH more attention now and can appreciate the difference. I actually find going back and working on them a fun challenge. Great post. 🙂

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    1. Thank you for your kind words.

      Hey, you just gave me an idea. As a writing exercise, I could go through old books on my shelf and try to rewrite first sentences that I don’t find appealing. I feel a little guilty saying that, but I also know that writing styles change with the times so what was publishable before might not fit the expectation of today’s audience.

      Glad you stopped by.:-)

      Liked by 1 person

  6. What a great collection of first lines, Priscilla! This was fun. That one “The cold rode the wind as a phantom, flowing down from the white-capped Wyvern Mountains. Shadow Witch by J. Thorn and Dan Padavona” is awesome! Wow!
    I hope your NaNoWriMo is going well. Hugs.

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    1. Thank you! Yeah, that Shadow Witch first line is good one.
      My Thanksgiving meal is sitting comfortably in my stomach while I type away at today’s NaNo quota.:-) I hope your NaNo project is going well too!
      I’m glad you stopped by. Happy Thanksgiving!

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  7. my Favourite first line, from my favourite book is “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
    That said, I don’t go in much for first lines and think entirely too much emphasis is put on them. I think this because, straight after the first line… is a second line. Then a third. Then a paragraph. Then a page. By the time you’ve read enough to work out if this book is ‘for you’ or not, you can’t even remember the first line. THAT said, I love your first line 🤗

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