I’ve spent my professional career writing, sometimes as a newspaper columnist and feature writer; other times where I contributed to or edited professional journals, brochures, quality of life books and newsletters. I also wrote two books of non-fiction.
I knew that every good piece of writing starts with a good lead, that the first sentence or two can entice readers to read more. But when I started to write my first work of fiction, Murder in the Museum: An Edmund DeCleryk Mystery, I forgot what I knew. The first several drafts weren’t bad, but something was amiss. Then one day it hit me. I had written a prologue, but the first sentences were boring. Truth be told, the prologue was boring. I reminded myself I knew what to do, took time to rethink it, and started from scratch, happy at last with the results.
I belong to a book group. At the beginning of the year we choose the books we’d like to read, and then each person commits to leading the discussion at least once during the year. The book we discussed for June was the National Book award-winner Sing Unburied Sing by Jesmyn Ward, a book of such depth and lyricism that when we discussed it, many of us did so with tears in our eyes. Ann, our discussion leader, asked how the first sentence related to one of the book’s themes, death, and to the title. The book is narrated by a young boy who says, straight out, “I like to think I know what death is. I like to think that it’s something I could look at straight.” Succinct and enticing, wouldn’t you agree?
When I got home from that meeting I started thinking about first sentences and the impact they can have on the reader. Consider, for example, Charles Dickens’ first lines in A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness….” How prophetic, those lines.
Then there is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. This classic coming of age novel is set during the first two decades of the twentieth century and begins, “Serene was a word you could put to Brooklyn, New York. Especially in the summer of 1912. Somber, as a word, was better.” If you’ve read the book, you’ll understand the context.
Perhaps you’ve read books by James Lee Burke, of contemporary southern crime fiction fame. His novel, Jolie Blon’s Bounce, starts out, “Growing up during the 1940s in New Iberia, down on the Gulf Coast, I never doubted how the world worked.” Powerful words, these, if you know the story.
So, as I knew all along, first sentences matter. They set the scene for what’s to come. And I’ll remember that when I start book two in the Edmund DeCleryk series.