Why are we so obsessed with first sentences?

on Thursday, June 24, 2010
Here's a random question: Why are so many authors (and readers) completely caught up in having great first sentences?

Often times I'll read blogs of other writers, or writing advice in general, and the whole "first sentence" thing is huge. Often times magazines like Time have one-page articles containing some of the "Best First Sentences of Famous Books," and others do the same as well. Honestly, it's gotten to the point of obsession to a few, with people refusing to read books if the first sentence isn't gripping.

What is up with this?

And I'm by no means saying I'm not guilty. As based on the previous exercise mentioned in the last blog post (as well as my recent push to think of important "hook" sentences), I'm just as obsessed with the perfect starting sentence as anybody else. But why is this?

Or, a more important question is: Why aren't we more obsessed with the last sentence? Shouldn't that be the one we are focusing on? It's the one that we'll remember after, verses the first sentence which might pull us in, only to be quickly overshadowed by the story that follows?

Here's an exercise: Grab one of your favorite books, and read the last paragraph (if you need a suggestion, try Mistborn, which has one of the best last paragraphs of most fantasy I've read). Isn't that what you want to remember? Isn't that where the novel reaches its final climax, a combination of both a jolt and a soothing salve to ease you out of the story you've invested so much time into?

Don't get me wrong, I still think first sentences are important. I just think everybody is getting too caught up in them. If I ever get to the point where I'm judging an entire book by the first sentence, I want you to come slap me in the face. It's a writer and reader fad, that's exploded out of control. Who cares? I'd say the first chapter would be a better indicator.

I think the reason is we like to have something short, concise, and easy to copy/paste to a blog to point out how clever it is. Take the opening of Elantris, which is a great opening, but is also a huge viewpoint error. I'm willing to bet you the editor let it stay because it was a good starting sentence, especially with this whole "starting sentence" craze that's getting all over the place. Yeah, it's great, but it also is in error.

Honestly? I don't remember most opening sentences of books. The only ones (besides my own) are from the book I am currently reading, Summer Knight, which I remember because I read it about a week ago.

"It was raining toads the day the White Council came to town."

Clever, yes, but only because later you find out it was literally raining toads. But that's a different story entirely.

So, this question is poised to all 13 of my followers (you are an elite group and you know it): Why do you (or don't you) care so much about this? Why is this so important?

And if you say "It's the hook that brings you into the story," that's the cheap answer out, because I'd really hope people would read the entire first chapter (at least) before deciding whether or not to chuck the book.

I'm not saying we shouldn't care about first sentences. I know full well there are plenty of bookstore browsers that just read the first sentence and then decide whether to continue. I'm just curious as to why. Is our active, modern lifestyle so crazy we can't spare more than five seconds before approving or condemning a novel? Hmm?

BONUS: My first sentences! I'm giving into the fad! Yay! Who cares! I'm even going to put Prologue and First Chapters, because I know some people look at both. This is more for my own interest, because secretly I've completely bought into this first sentence thing, but ranting about it makes me meta and nonconformist.

"Antium’s wings fluttered slightly as an icy burst of wind penetrated him." - Lacrymosa, Prologue
"“Lilly! Time to wake up!”" - Lacrymosa, Chapter One: Morning

"The hooded figure had no idea she was being hunted, her stalkers only a few feet away in surrounding bushes and behind trees." - The Reigns of the World (Lacrymosa 2), Prologue
"“Are you going to torture me today, or should I come back?” Elihu quipped sarcastically from his perch." - The Reigns of the World, Chapter 1

"The corpse was headless, and most of the remaining flesh had already been picked away by the vultures." - Harbinger, Prologue
"The saloon's doors squeaked as the woman strode in, covering the dingy bar with bright shafts of sunlight." - Harbinger, Chapter 1

"“Ok, now this is why you don’t put a woman in charge of your finances," Jeremiah Arcadiana, mercenary, thief, and self-proclaimed mastermind of schemes both evil and devious, stood arms crossed facing the entrance to his shop." - Ringforger (dead), Chapter 1

"Princess Ailene’s brows furrowed as she stared out across her Condemned kingdom." - Where Gods and Mortal Dance, Prologue
"You wouldn’t think it, but there are benefits being the Useless god. For starters, all your drinks are free." - Where Gods and Mortals Dance, Chapter 1

""Push me!"" - Paradise Seekers, Prologue: The Dream
"The first thing I ever felt were the soft cotton sheets, their warm embrace gentle as I slowly awoke." - Paradise Seekers, Day 1: Paradise Seekers

"On the day the gods died, the Gangrene crystals appeared." - Effulgent Corruption, Prologue: A Note
"Drake's second life began almost exactly the same as his first: naked, screaming, and with excruciating pain racking his entire body." - Effulgent Corruption, Chapter 1: Marked

And a few random ones.
"The Ragged One crossed the desert, a straight line carved behind." - Canyon Story (Tentative Title)
"Believe me, if I had known Samantha was going to go straight for my neck, I would have never asked her out." - Vampire YA (Tentative Title)
"I never minded the Peacemakers, until one of them tried to kill me." - Graffiti (Tentative Title)...LOL?

I'd post last sentences to prove my previous point, but I'm fairly certain that would be too spoileriffic.


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