Why the First Sentence Matters [and why it doesn't]
Tonight I played the game Liebrary (yes, that is how you spell it). One person selects a card and reads the title, author, and synopsis of a book. Everyone else writes down what they think the first sentence of the book might be. The person who read the card writes down the actual first sentence (it’s printed on the card) and everyone turns their answer in. The answers are read, everyone votes, and whoever guesses correctly receives correctly gets points and whoever has their answer guessed gets points. It’s balderdash but with books.
I loved this game. It combines two of my favorite things: books and writing. And it taught me a valuable lesson: the first sentence is one of the most important. But it’s also the one people forget first.
Think about it
How many books can you name their first sentence? (I can do War and Peace, Moby Dick, Romeo & Juliet, and Genesis.)
Anyone who writes anything will tell you that the way you open is important, and rightly so; you only get one first impression. As the reader, you (the author) have a split second to draw me and give me a hint at where the whole story is going. A well crafted first sentence can bring me to the edge of my seat and tell me much more than I realize.
This morning I was reading through the story of Jacob and Esau and I realized that even the title we give this story is actually a compelling opener. We call the story “Jacob and Esau.” And if you look close enough at this title you see it riddled with the entire story — Jacob, the second born (so his name should come second) lives up to his name (deceiver, heel grabber) and takes his brother’s place. What should be “Esau and Jacob” becomes “Jacob and Esau.” The opening title says it all, only you don’t even realize it.
The First Sentence Matters. Sort of.
It catch my attention. They tell the story before I even know the story. They draw me in.
But when it comes to almost any book you read, you remember the characters, the themes, the overarching ideas and scenarios more than you remember the opening sentences. You might be able to quote one or two lines of dialogue or prose, but chances are the first sentence is not one of them.
So as a writer, take care to craft a well written, intentional, and captivating first sentence. But accept that fact that most of us will forget the moment after we read it.
The first sentence serves a purpose: to draw me in. But it’s the rest of the book that I will remember. So spend some sweat equity making sure it’s worth my time.
March 23, 2012