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What makes a good first sentence work?

📝 In Writing Life Stories: How To Make Memories Into Memoirs, Ideas Into Essays And Life Into Literature by Bill Roorbach there is an exercise from chapter 1 about first sentences. These aren’t limited to the very first sentence in the piece, it could be the beginning sentence in the chapter or segment too. The goal is to look at a bunch of them, pick some personal favorites, and determine why they work.

I won’t reproduce my list in entire. These aren’t even my favorites, just ones that I wanted to comment on.

Call me Ishmael.

I wonder what is the speaker’s true name. Why are we using this name instead of that one? Ishmael is an exotic feeling name today, whether that was true or not in the 1850s I don’t know. It’s such a short sentence to contain all that. I think it’s a great success. My spouse disagrees.

The old ram stands looking down over rock piles, stupidly triumphant.

This is a very odd place to bring our focus when the title character is such a mythically great monster. Why is he concerned about goats at all? It has a bit of whimsy. I feel like I am seeing the old ram through someone else’s eyes, with some of their thougts about it. There is background here, judgementalness and prior history with this goat in particular.

It was a beautiful morning at the end of November.

This is a very unusual wording given that we are purportedly reading a manuscript written in 1327, translated into French. And why is this what the author, a monk, is bringing our attention to? Seems very unusual, personal, a memory.

After examining first sentences more than I had before, opening sentences need a couple of things to really succeed. They need a bit of crunchy specificity (thanks Tim!). A good opening sentence has a touch of mystery. It opens the door a bit further, maybe in a surprising way on what you already know about the story. There should be a noticeable question in your mind when you read it: why is this the aspect that the author chose? It should illicit a response of curiosity, and a desire for resolution. It launches (or re-launches) the “story” in the direction that it eventually goes. The shorter the better the sentence, often times the better.

There is a companion exercise to take a similar look at my own first sentences. I still have to do that one.

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