Tips for Writing and Editing Novels:
That All-Important First Sentence
K.P. White, M.D., Ph.D.
If you are writing novels, chances are that you write pretty well. Poor writers rarely undertake such a venture. You likely know how to use spell check and grammar check. So what an editor like me most can help you with is organization. Whether you have an interest in publishing your work or you are writing a novel to share with your friends, children or grandchildren, there are certain rules that always apply.
First, novels must be interesting from the start if they are to be read to completion. I have a huge collection of novels, especially fantasy novels. Almost every day I pick one of them up for a half hour or so, merely as a restful diversion from other more serious reading and all my editing and writing. I have a few that I have never read, although I have tried. I just cannot push past the first thirty pages. That, to me, is the absolute longest you can lure readers along before a book absolutely grabs them or, alternatively, loses them.
But how do you make your story interesting from the start? Invariably, you have to put the story in context, which means introducing characters, places, situations and background, some of which may be tedious. Try, if you will, reading any of several books describing the folklore behind the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, before you read the stories themselves. I am sorry, but I find that most of this lore is boring and complicated. Yet the Hobbit and subsequent trilogy are among the top sellers of all times and now have a Trilogy of epic motion pictures to accompany them. Why?
J.R.R. Tolkein’s success started with the first sentence of his first book, The Hobbit: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Why does this sentence work? Why does it grab so many readers? Probably the most important reason it does so is that it immediately raises a question: What is a hobbit?
The book Insomnia, which also has been made into a motion picture, starts: “Will Dormer opened his eyes abruptly.” Who is Will Dormer? And what is making him open his eyes abruptly?
Notice also that these two opening sentences of hugely successful books are short and simple. Either sentence could have been written by an eight year old. Compare these sentences with this one from one of the books that I just cannot seem to get into, despite several attempts. It starts: “It was a game, shon’ai, the passing game, Kel-style, in the dim round hall of the Kel, the middle tower of the House – black-robed men and a black-robed woman, a circle of ten.” This sentence certainly raises questions. Unfortunately, one of them is: “Just what the heck is this author talking about?”
Hence, the first rules of first sentences are:
1) It must raise an interesting question… Who? What? Why? How?
2) It should be relatively short.
3) It must be relatively simple to understand.
Oddly enough, writing a simple, short sentence can be difficult, particularly for young writers who pride themselves in being able to write so fluently. Where is the fun in writing: ‘Everything stopped’ when one can write: ‘Everything in the universe seemed to have come down to this one particular moment in time when the earth and the seas and the heavens ran together and all movement and thought and feeling ceased to be’? But which is more effective? Which will grab the reader?
The next sentence in this story can start to explain what is meant by this first short one. The power of the short, simple sentence cannot and should not be underestimated by the new novel writer.
There are a two more rules of first sentences that I believe in, one of which is demonstrated in the first sentence of yet another hugely successful series, which ultimately led to ten best-selling novels. The first book of this series starts: “The first thing the boy Garion remembered was the kitchen at Faldor’s farm.”
Again, this sentence is relatively short and very simple, and yet it raises several questions: Who is Garion? Why is the kitchen important enough to be the first thing he remembers? How long ago was the boy in that kitchen? What is this boy doing now? Where is Faldor’s farm? All of theses questions stem from a very straight-forward and relatively short sentence.
But the other thing that this sentence does in common with my first two examples is that it introduces one main character immediately. From the tone, it is clear that the characters introduced in this and the first two examples are central to the upcoming stories. Immediately, the reader has a character to identify with. In fact, each of these three books, The Hobbit, Insomnia and Pawn of Prophesy, continues to focus on the character introduced in the first sentence for several more sentences before anyone else is introduced. Compare this to the book I said I have been unable to finish, in which so many, mostly nameless characters are introduced in the first several pages that I found myself spinning. Hence, rule four for first sentences is:
4) Introduce the central character of the book or at least another VERY important character. Then continue to focus on that character at least for the next several sentences.
My final rule of first sentences is:
5) Make the information conveyed in that first sentence important to the story.
For example, if your first sentence is ‘Tom Johnson was wearing a green hat’, make sure that the green hat somehow is important to the story. Perhaps Tom wearing that green hat results in him being mistaken for someone else and kidnapped in Chapter Three. Perhaps that green hat is part of his baseball uniform and playing baseball is central to this boy’s life. Just like people remember first impressions, people remember first sentences. Readers often are keen to begin a new book and want to be enticed by it. They open it anxious to delve into it. Their attention is at its fullest. Planting an important seed of information in that first sentence allows it to grow throughout the story.
The novel I currently am writing starts: Zeke was crazy; everyone in Apple Grove knew this.” The sentence is short. It is simple. It raises several questions: “Who is Zeke? Why is he crazy? Is he truly crazy? Where is Apple Grove? It introduces one of the most important characters in the book. In fact, Chapter One is entitled: “Zeke” And Zeke’s apparent craziness is a central theme throughout the book.
If you already have started writing a novel, I challenge you to go back to Page One and read that first sentence you wrote. Will it grab your readers?