Blank page, sharp pencil, first sentences

Writing First Sentences

  12+   To help overcome writer's block and make a start on writing the first sentences of A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway is said to have reminded himself:

“Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”

"First sentences" could be said to have a dual purpose. They get the creative juices "flowing" for the writer and they "tease" or "hook" the reader into committing time to read the writer's finished work.

In an earlier review of Dog on It by Spencer Quinn, I commented on the cliche you should never judge a book by its cover. (In the case of Dog On It, I love the cover - but, then, I am a dog lover!)

However, I’ve found first sentences to be a fair judge of whether or not I’ll enjoy reading a piece of fiction or nonfiction. And Dog On It hooked this dog lover from the start:

"I could smell him – or rather the booze on his breath – before he even opened the door, but my sense of smell is pretty good, probably better than yours."

Book Covers and First Sentences

I've been posting a series on Instagram under @tallandtrueweb of #bookcovers and #firstsentences from #mybooks. It's been a fun and educational project from a writer's perspective, with standout first sentences in some books (literally, a single sentence!) and others where the writer teases the reader in a paragraph (or two!) to carry on reading and turn the next page.

In addition to Dog on It - A Chet & Bernie Mystery by Spencer Quinn (2008), the following are five examples of #firstsentences from my Instagram posts:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. ~ 1984 by George Orwell (1949)

In the beginning, there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry. ~ The Famished Road by Ben Okri (1991)

The gale tore at him and he felt its bite deep within and he knew that if they did not landfall in three days they would all be dead. ~ Shogun by James Clavell (1975)

At 5.00 a.m., as usual, reveille was sounded - a hammer banged against a rail just by the staff hut. The intermittent ringing came faintly through the window-panes, two fingers thick with frost, and died away rapidly: it was cold, and the warder did not want to go on banging for long. ~ One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1962)

Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him. ~ Brighton Rock by Graham Greene (1938)

Perhaps I could have saved him, with only a word, two words, out of my mouth. Perhaps I could have saved us all. But I never spoke them. ~ Too Late the Phalarope by Alan Paton (1955)

I learnt nothing about Byzantium in school. For a long while all I had were images: flashes of lapis lazuli, golden mosaic tiles, gloomy icons. Byzantium was like an undiscovered continent that I planned to get around to exploring one day. ~ Ghost Empire by Richard Fidler (2016)

Did I say five? I quoted seven above and could have included more! If you're interested, visit my #bookcovers and #firstsentences series on Instagram.

Or pick one of your favourite books from your library and read its opening. Does the writer make you want to carry on reading? My guess is yes, otherwise it wouldn't be one of your favourite books!

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My Instagram posts remind me as a writer of the importance of first sentences (and book covers!) for teasing and hooking readers to commit to reading a piece of writing. And Hemingway reminds us of the importance of first sentences to the writing process.

© 2018 Robert Fairhead 

N.B. A version of this piece is also published on Robert Fairhead's blog.

Robert Fairhead

A middle-aged dad and dog owner, Robert Fairhead is an editor and writer at Tall And True, and blogs on his eponymous website, RobertFairhead.com.

His favourite pastimes include reading and writing, walking his dog, and watching Aussie Rules Football with his son. He is also a part-time dog trainer and runs classes at his local dog training club and through Robert's Responsible Dog Training.

Robert has worked as an electrician, a computer programmer, and a sales and marketing consultant, and he is the principal copywriter at Rocher Communications.

His book reviews and writing on dogs have appeared in newspapers and online. And in 2020, he published a collection of short stories, Both Sides of the Story.

Robert has also enjoyed a one-night stand as a stand-up comic.