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He Plunged It Into Her.

September 24, 2012

How important is the first line of a novel? So often I’ve read “how to write” advice that emphasizes the importance of making the first sentence so appealing, so enthralling, that readers can’t possibly resist discovering what happens next. They wouldn’t consider tossing the book down even if they knew their frozen dinner, at the very moment that they’re mesmerized with the author’s dynamic prose, is quickly being burned to a crisp.

I never bought that argument.

First sentences don’t make a novel. The sentence is nothing but a seed that helps the novel grow and, with a little luck, the reader grows with it. A strong first sentence that knocks you on your butt doesn’t mean the 75,000 words following it will hold your interest. It’s just a start.

I picked at random five of my favorite novels, all of them classics. Here are the opening sentences, and none of them will make you catch your breath:

A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.–The End of the Affair, Graham Greene.

On an exceptionally hot evening in July a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as though in hesitation, towards K. Bridge.–Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Jewel and I came up from the field, following the path in single file.–As I lay Dying, William Faulkner.

Vacations were automatic and followed a pattern.–Jack Gance, Ward Just

He awoke, opened his eyes.–The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles.

As great as those books are, there’s nothing distinguishing about the first sentences. Yet they serve their purpose; they get the story rolling.

And unlike the sentence that’s the title of this post, they’re not a gratuitous exercise in trying to hook the reader.

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