Monday, April 04, 2011

First Things First

By Bryan Gruley

How’s this first sentence?

Reading the fine first paragraph of Barbara D’Amato’s new novel (congrats, Barbara!), I realize I’ve grown curious about reviews on Goodreads or DorothyL or Amazon that single out the “first sentence” of books.

Maybe too curious.

As a journalist for more than thirty years, I’m hooked on hooking readers with that first sentence of a newspaper story, the “lede.” One of my favorites was on a Pulitzer Prize-winning story by Associated Press reporter Mark Fritz on the genocide in Rwanda:

KARUBAMBA, Rwanda--Nobody lives here any more.

The story goes on to describe in unflinching detail a town in which all of the inhabitants have been murdered, “a flesh-and-bone junkyard of human wreckage.”

A lede that grabs you by the throat seems more crucial than ever to a newspaper story, because papers and their websites are filled with other stories, photographs, graphics and other items all competing for the reader’s attention. Not too mention all the other websites, blogs, youtube videos and other digital distractions. Time-pressed readers scan headlines, look at some ledes, and read few stories beyond the first two or three paragraphs.

That imperative I understand. But in a book? Must the first sentence or paragraph really be so grabby?

I assume reviewers who take the trouble to note a book’s first sentence do so because they think it’s important. And certainly there are plenty of great novels that announce their greatness in the first line or two. The Catcher in The Rye, Slaughterhouse-Five and The Old Man and the Sea are good examples.

But does it follow that all first sentences or paragraphs in novels must hook the reader? Or even the first chapter? I will stipulate that the reader has to be engaged with some scrap of plot or some fascinating character in the first ten pages or so. But even before she or he has even turned the first page?

I wonder. When somebody buys or borrows a book, they’re obviously aware they’re going to be spending more time than the matter of minutes it takes to read most newspaper or magazine stories. It would seem they’ve made an implicit contract with themselves that they’ll give the book a bit more time to get them involved.

I’m currently reading Richard Russo’s excellent Nobody’s Fool. Contrary to much of my mystery/thriller reading, I find that I’m actually taken by Russo’s leisurely pace. The main character, Sully, barely appears in the first twenty pages or so. Things happen, but they happening in the languid rhythm of the New England town where the story is set.

Russo isn’t shy about stopping to tell you leisurely back stories about the town and its characters. On their own, these tales don’t appear to be moving the plot forward, but they’re in fact shaping characters and setting scenes and defining conflicts that, in their subtle, nearly invisible ways, make the overall story work.

As a reader myself, I’ve grown wary of first sentences, paragraphs and chapters, because there are also lousy books that look start well, as if the author had spent so much time perfecting the opening that she neglected the rest.

Browsing in a bookstore, I’ll often open a book to the middle and read one or two random paragraphs. If those are well wrought, I have more faith that the writer has paid attention to the entire story, not just to setting the hook.

I’m hardly an example of a great first-line writer. I loved the first line in my first novel (“You can never look into their eyes.”), but then my editor made me write a prologue, which had its own first line that, by dint of coming first, trumped the one I liked.

In my second book, I also liked the first line--“I have learned that you can be too grateful for love.”--because, like some good newspaper ledes, it raised a question that, I hope, compelled the reader to read on.

One reviewer disagreed. She argued that a line appearing a few pages later—“They found her hanging in the shoe tree at the edge of town.”—should have been the first sentence. Well, hell, I thought: she might be right. I told Kent Krueger about it at some festival we were attending. “Hm,” he said. “It does grab your attention.”

I thought I had a good opening to my next novel, The Skeleton Box, which I turned in to my editor last week. My pal the author Jonathan Eig is reading the manuscript. He sent me an email today: “First chapter really sings but I'd lose the first two grafs.”

He’s probably right, damn it.

I’d love to hear what others think about first lines.

19 comments:

Sarah W said...

Some books rock the first sentence, but I've been hooked by stories that begin by a bird flying across the scene.

Maybe it's a matter of pacing or intent? I would think thrillers hit the ground running more often than cozies. But some cozies use first line foreshadowing.

Guess all I really know about first lines is that I don't appear to have any natural talent for writing 'em.

Jamie Freveletti said...

Love first lines. A good one can catch me every time. And Russo is a favorite. His book "Straight Man" is by turns hysterical and poignant. My favorite of his. (and why is it called a "lede" and not a "lead"? Is it a shorthand for another word?

Dana King said...

I like first sentences, but think they're overrated. As with your wondering about first sentences of chapters and paragraphs, I believe too much is made of "hooking" the reader (or the viewer), when it's often more effective to lure him in.

Ricky Bush said...

Seems that agents sure do look for an early hook, so I guess reviewers like to follow suit. Then it's up to the author to make sure that they can live up to the hook and make sure that it's just not hype.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Would "Call me Ishmael" sound so good if we didn't know what came after? Is "Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again" impressive by itself? If I wrote "Last night I dreamed I went to Evanston again" would I be writing grerat prose? There are some great first lines, but most first lines we remember were attached to great books.

Jen - devourer of books said...

I always love great first and second sentences, but they are by no means necessary for me to continue reading a book. I make note of really awesome ones in my reviews occasionally, but not very often.

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