The first sentence.

07 Mar

My first literature teacher once told me, in a novel, every single word has the purpose to move the plot forward. This is specially true in the first sentence, or paragraph, of a book, because it has an additional purpose. It has to sell it.

Back then, I was young and inexperienced, more than now I mean. We spent an hour and a half analyzing the first paragraph of a master book, Cold Skin, by Albert Sánchez Piñol. That paragraph had enough material to spend all that time talking about it. And though it deserved it, what my teacher was trying to show was a broader fact: Every single word is giving information. In the beginning of a book, where the reader has no information at all, and she has to decide whether to start reading it or not, every word counts.

An example of good first sentence

I won’t delve deep in Cold Skin’s first paragraph, but let me start the analysis as an example of what I mean:

We are never very far from those we hate.

At a first glance, it might seem the sentence is not telling much about the plot. Let’s prove it wrong.

The first word, “We”, is used here to tell the reader the book is written in first person. Holding this information is counterproductive, unclear POVs confuse the reader, so it is a good idea to solve this matter as soon as possible.

The sentence continues, and goes “We are never very far”. It is noteworthy that, in the original version, it was “infinitely far”. That is true in many levels and an interesting philosophic question. You can never be infinitely far from anything, because distance between two existing things is finite. But this is giving a lot of additional information. It tells us the narrator is trying to distance himself from something. It tells us he tried to go far, he probably went far, and probably then he realized that simple truth: No matter how far you go, it might never be enough. Why? Maybe because what he is trying to distance from lies within himself. Maybe because no matter how far, that thing will still stand there as a reason to run away farther from it.

Finally, the sentence concludes with “from those we hate”. This tells us there is someone the narrator hates. He can’t get far enough from him/her, but he would like to. Maybe, following the previous thoughts, who he hates is himself.

And there you go. You have a whole plot, or dozens of potential plots, out of a a priori simple sentence. This is important to note: This sentence is not giving us any certainty. Just makes us ask a lot of questions. What does this make you think of? Exactly, fishing. Well, maybe not, but it will.

How to fish

This is the shape and parts of a hook:


It works simply. You put a bait in the bend. The fish bites the bait, and the bite bites it back. Firstly, the bite’s spike pierces the fish’s skin. After the fish has been pierced, it tries to escape. Then, the barb (which I learned in spanish is appropriately called the death) stops the fish from escaping thanks to its shape, with that second spike coming from inside.

So, what in hell does this have to do with writing?

You probably have heard about hooks in writing. The initial plot point that hooks the reader, that gets her interested in going on. That is a powerful metaphor, because, just like real fishing hooks, it has two parts: The bite and the barb.

The bite

When most writers talk about the hook, they are usually referring the barb. The plot point at the end of the first chapter, scene, or so, that really gets you trapped into the story. It doesn’t have to explain what the story will be all about (that is what the First Plot Point is for), it just has to get the reader’s interest. It has to be the death of the reader’s chances to escape from falling into the book’s story.

But in order for this to happen, first the reader has to bite the bait, and that is what the first part of the hook is for. The bite is the first sentence. The one that hurts. The one that tears the skin, makes the reader bleed (metaphorically) and try to escape from this sudden uncertainty.

So how should the first sentence act to become a successful bite? It works just as any story, so please let me return to Brooks’ six forces:

  • Compelling premise: The first sentence has to be somehow related to the concept of the story, and tie it to the character. In our example above, that would be the idea that the main character is trying to get more distance, though he found it unsuccessful.
  • Dramatic tension: It also should, in some way, foreshadow or tell the conflict the character will be facing in the story. In the example, that the character has enemies he is trying to escape from.
  • Expositional pacing: In the beginning, there is no expositional pacing to use but one: Impact. You have just one sentence or short paragraph to get the job done. Go straight to the point, hit the strongest you can. Maybe with a philosophical question that could keep the reader thinking for hours, like in the example; maybe with an event so strange or strong that it will surprise anyone.
  • Hero empathy: The earlier you can bind the reader to the character, the better.
  • Vicarious experience: One of the most important things the first sentence must do is ellicit questions. Make the reader want to continue, to know more. You can also show the setting to convince the reader to follow you in a world she will like, but I’m not talking about exposition, I’m talking about a glimpse. In Cold Skin, the first sentence tells us the main character might have been far, and not many words ahead, one learns he is in the Antarctic Circle, which is quite far for most of us. More important here is to make the reader ask for more information about anything we have said. Why, how, what. The first sentence is no place for answers. Just questions.
  • Narrative strategy: The way how you present the (lack of) information. The beauty of the sentence. The order of presenting the questions, the words in which to hide the answers behind. The reason I didn’t like the change in the word “infinitely” from the original Cold Skin.

The less, the more

You can’t give all the information about the book in the first sentence, nor you should. What you have to give is foreshadowing to the information, and desires to find it out.

The conclusion is that all the points above is not what the first sentence should contain, but what should it make you think of. When you don’t have space to specify, you can abuse of preconceptions. After all, it doesn’t care what is explained here, the only important thing is to create the desire for those explanations.

Maybe an example will clarify it. This is what I consider a just ok first sentence:

When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.

It is ok, it makes you wonder what in hell has allowed that bastard to live for so long, and in which sense the party would be special. Although it has nothing to do with what the book was about. This is a first sentence that I find acts as a better hook:

If Mr. Frodo had known how far his uncle’s eleventy-first birthday party would take him, he would have run away way before.

Though maybe these would not be the questions I would like to do myself when starting to read this book. They would be more like:

Mr. Frodo thought it is good to keep your demons with you all times, that you never know when they will prove themselves useful.

You can find alternatives that beat all of the above. Now, look at the first sentence you have for your book. Can you show it and be proud of it for what it is, without the rest of the book? If not, throw it away and forge a real first sentence.

Marc Wolvesheir

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Posted by on 7 March 2015 in Write better


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