Tuesday, October 2, 2012

First sentences in fiction

It's a widely-rumored 'truth' that first sentences in fiction are key to hooking book buyers. I suppose there's a measure of actual truth in that, though when I browse in bookstores I tend to read more than a single sentence, or even an opening paragraph, to form a would I like to read this? impression.

For a writer who pays attention to the sort of advice dispensed by agents and editors, there's a lot of pressure built up around first sentences, paragraphs, or pages. Novice novelists can easily get the impression that first pages without gripping plot hooks are destined to be slush-pile rejects. And while that may be true depending on the agent or publisher reading one's manuscript, it's also true that some stories don't want to start out with a big flash-bang ... and not all readers are looking for a plot twist every third paragraph. A more subtle -- and perhaps more honest -- variation of the hook 'em early rule is that a compelling voice is as much an invitation into a fictional world as a page one cliffhanger.

A writer in my critique group asked us recently to post "the first sentences or paragraphs of the best Chapter One you've ever read." I had a hard time coming up with favorite first sentence or a best Chapter One. Off the top of my head? In truth, nothing came immediately to mind.

As it happens, on the day my fellow-writer's prompt came over the transom I began reading Open City, by Teju Cole. The first sentence was ... fine. Not remarkable. But by the end of the first paragraph I was wholly pulled into the narrator's voice:
And so when I began to go on evening walks last fall, I found Morningside Heights an easy place from which to set out into the city. The path that drops down from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and crosses Morningside Park is only fifteen minutes from Central Park. In the other direction, going west, it is some ten minutes to Sakura Park, and walking northward from there brings you toward Harlem, along the Hudson, though traffic makes the river on the other side of the trees inaudible. These walks, a counterpoint to my busy days at the hospital, steadily lengthened, taking me farther and farther afield each time, so that I often found myself at quite a distance from home late at night, and was compelled to return home by subway. In this way, at the beginning of the final year of my psychiatry fellowship, New York City worked itself into my life at walking pace.
Now this sort of opening may not be your cup of tea. It won't draw every reader in. But for this reader, smitten with W.G. Sebald's work from the moment I first picked up Austerlitz, an inveterate city-walker, and in love with New York City from my first sojourn there at a tender age, I knew right away that Open City was going to take me places I longed to visit.

So with no immediate favorite leaping to mind, I decided to answer the question asked of my group by looking at a couple of dozen novels I'd read recently, and star-rating the first sentences to see how my scores would correspond to what I thought of the novels as complete works.

I realized as I read these couple of dozen sentences that first-impressions aren't all about craft: my response has as much to do with the types of books I like to read as with the writer's objective talent.

For example, the start of Jodi Picault's The Tenth Circle is this: Laura Stone knew exactly how to go to hell. Not even ten words, only one of them polysyllabic, and all the punch a hard hitting, plot driven story needs. If you're looking for that sort of thing, you know right away you've found it. Me? I rolled my eyes when I read this sentence for the first time, and indeed I didn't like the novel at all. I gave the sentence a single star as I ran through my scoring exercise, but -- really? -- that's an idiosyncratic decision. The sentence represents what Picault wrote vividly and accurately.

Here's the rubric I used to apply stars to sentences in the list below:

***** Hooked! I'm compelled to read this book. I'll be shocked if I don't like it. I'm probably going to love this book.

**** Nice, an auspicious start. I have a feeling I'm going to like the voice and writing here.

*** Inviting, but not exciting. I want to keep going, and need to if I'm to get a real sense of this book.

** Can't tell anything, really, about the book, voice, or writing from the first sentence.

* Uh oh. This novel could be really painful to read.
So, twenty-four books grouped from most fabulous to least interesting opening sentences in this reader's subjective opinion:
***** Swamplandia! (Karen Russell)
**** The Wasp Factory (Iain Banks)
**** A Visit from the Goon Squad (Jennifer Egan)
**** Open City (Teju Cole)
**** This Beautiful Life (Helen Schulman)
**** Ransom (David Malouf)
**** The History of Love (Nicole Krauss)
**** Cloud Atlas (David Mitchell)
*** In The Woods (Tana French)
*** When We Were Orphans (Kazuo Ishiguro)
*** Growth of the Soil (Knut Hamsun)
*** The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes)
*** The Sea, The Sea (Iris Murdoch)
*** An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England (Brock Clarke)
*** State of Wonder (Ann Patchett)
*** City (Clifford D. Simak)
*** How to Buy a Love of Reading (Tanya Egan Gibson)
*** War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy)
** I Curse the River of Time (Per Petterson)
** The Cat's Table (Michael Ondaatje)
** The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Mohsin Hamid)
** The Gospel of Anarchy (Justin Taylor)
* The Melancholy of Resistance (László Krasznahorkai)
* The Tenth Circle (Jodi Picoult)

I won't list these books in the order I liked them, that's TMI ... and star ratings can be dangerous: look at what XKCD had to say on the topic recently, in the cartoon embedded at left. I will say that books on this list whose first sentences left me indifferent went on to be books I liked or even loved. Books whose first sentences made me swoon turned out to be serious disappointments. The few books I loathed were evenly distributed from awful to fabulous when it came to first sentences. In a few  cases, the first sentences were pretty good predictors of how, for example, I rated these books on Goodreads.

Bottom line: I found that the correspondence between how I responded to first sentences and how I responded to a book as a whole varies ... through a wide range.

If you ask me, sniffing out books I'm likely to enjoy reading involves a much more complex alchemy than can be cooked up from first sentences alone.

What's your read on this question? Do first sentences tell you everything you need to know about a book? Or do you need longer passages to get a feel for whether you'd like to read a novel?

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
A childhood favorite: The Shy Stegosaurus of Cricket Creek
Parallel lives in fiction: Murdoch, Barnes, the Man Booker prize
Book first or movie first?

Thanks once again to Evan Bench for the image of a stack of books at Shakespeare and Co. in Paris; and to xkcd for all the chuckles, especially this one.

1 comment:

  1. Personally you have to go a few pages. If only reading the first sentence, you're more likely influenced by the book title or especially the preview on the jacket. The preview will keep me going for a while.