First Sentence Test

My friend Brian (the weather witch) recently wrote a blog post about judging a book by its first sentence. This concept intrigued me because it’s not really something I notice. My strategy for deciding if I will like a book or not usually involves reading until I get bored and then deciding if I’m far enough along to warrant finishing anyway. A lot of times I’ll end up slogging through despite boredom (although I do have a separate shelf on my GoodReads account for books I started but couldn’t finish). Most of the time I feel honor bound to finish a book, since so much of what I read is chosen to increase my librarian abilities, not satisfy personal taste. I mean, clearly.

But maybe there IS a kind of first sentence that really draws me in, at least subconsciously, so I decided to look at the first sentences of every book I’ve ever considered my favorite. It turns out, a lot of them started in medias res, or at least just jumping right on into some action without any annoying framing or scene setting. Let me hit you with some examples:

“This time there would be no witnesses.”
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams

I know, if one of your favorite books is by Douglas Adams, it almost has to be Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and believe me, I am ALL ABOUT manic depressive robots having conversations with sentient mattresses, but Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency has always been closer to my heart. I used to think it was because it combined my love of “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, time travel, and vindictive horoscope writers, but now I’m thinking maybe it’s all in the first sentence. Hitchhiker’s, after all, begins with some scene setting. Some massively general scene setting:

“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.”
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

I’m not saying it’s bad, but it doesn’t draw me in as immediately. With the former I immediately want to know 1) what are you doing that you don’t want anyone to see? and 2) what happened LAST time? With the latter I just kind of nod and say “Yep”. Here’s an even more dramatic example:

“So this was how it ended.”
Devilish by Maureen Johnson

How WHAT ended? I thought this book was about teen girls and cupcakes! Although, in retrospect, the title should have clued me in that this book is more serious business. Still:

The Face of the Devil

“There was no doubt about it: there was a fox behind the climbing frame.”
Un Lun Dun by China Mieville

This sentence kind of makes me feel like I’ve just come in at the tail end of an argument that goes “That’s totally a fox, you guys!!!” “No, it can’t be!” “It SO is! Look! Look!” Also, I’m not sure what a climbing frame is, so, again, SUSPENSE until I figure it out. I even used this tactic in my own book, although granted not as dramatically as Adams or Johnson:

“Etheos grumbled something inaudible to himself, but ate the muffin anyway.”
The Knight, the Wizard, and the Lady Pig by Patricia Ladd

I mean, what could possibly be so wrong with a muffin, Etheos? Unless it’s gross or something, and then why are you eating it? Is someone forcing you? Why is your name Etheos? How do you say that, anyway? SO MANY QUESTIONS. Or maybe I just have an affinity for baked goods, whatever.

Then there are sentences that try to TRICK me into thinking they’re in medias res, but are really just using cleverly disguised scene setting! You’d think I’d be mad about a narrator jerking me around like that, but I’m fooled every time:

“Later, while I was facing the Potter Moth, or fleeing for my life from the First Ones, or helping man a cannon aboard Jack Havock’s brig Sophronia, I would often think back to the way my life used to be, and to that last afternoon at Larklight, before all our misfortunes began.”
Larklight by Philip Reeve

So the sentences after this are all scene-setting about Larklight (which, granted, is a way cool steampunk Victorian space mansion beyond the moon so not boring), but I am totes willing to sit through it because I really want to know what a Potter Moth is and how Art gets from fighting with his sister in their drawing room to cannons. Space cannons.

If an author’s got to use scene-setting, they apparently need to at least make it funny in some way to hold my interest and earn a place on Patricia’s Favorite Books List. Observe:

“Linderwall was a large kingdom, just east of the Mountains of Morning, where philosophers were highly respected and the number five was fashionable.”
Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede

Starts off like it’s going to be all normal, and then BAM the number five was fashionable. Totally not where you thought that sentence was going and I am all for that. I immediately start imaging what a society with a fashionable number would be like. Would you want to show up in a group of five everywhere you went? Would you put five straws in your drink? Five ludicrously tiny dogs in your purse? Hats shaped like the number five? All of these are excellent ideas. I remember the Enchanted Forest Chronicles as being my favorite for a long time, but I always assumed it was a combination of fiesty Princess Cimorene and the author also being named Patricia. Now I know: fashionable numbers in the first sentence.

“What began it all was the bright bone of a dream I could hardly hold on to.”
Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje

This is by far the most serious book on this list, and even it is pretty funny in a quiet, sometimes sad kind of way. I like how we don’t know what “it” is, and I can’t get over the phrase “the bright bone of a dream”. Even after reading this book about 37 times, I’m not really positive what it means, but, like much of his phrasing, I feel like I can recognize it without really knowing what it is. Running in the Family is the most beautiful book I have ever read, and I like how it begins vaguely, but with a clear image of trying to hold on to a dream, something I also have trouble with.

“These events transpired just after the time when the most powerful soft-drinks company in the world pulled off the greatest feat of advertising in modern history.”
The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman by Louis de Bernieres

Of course the obvious question is, what did they do? The answer is relayed in the next sentence: they painted the moon red with their logo. The rest of the chapter is about how this caused some polar bears to evolve red fur, and how everyone was all worried about how it would affect “primitive Amazonian tribes”, but it’s cool because they’ve all known about Coke for years. Even though I’m pretty sure the moon being painted with a Coke logo never comes up again after the first page (which potentially makes this beginning even BETTER), it’s an interesting enough image to really set the stage for the half-realistic, half-fanciful, ALL magical realism story that follows. And then, of course, there’s Terry Pratchett, with probably one of my favorite scene-setting first sentences ever:

“Some things start before other things.”
The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

Some might call it laziness, I call it GENIUS.

I’m a little disappointed that my current favorite book, The True Meaning of Smekday, has probably the most boring sentence in this survey. Like Running in the Family, I can read Smekday over and over and over again and never get tired of it, but unlike Running in the Family it’s first sentence doesn’t really impress me.

“Assignment: Write an essay titled The True Meaning of Smekday.”
The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex

Clearly a framing technique for the story is that it is ostensibly part of a school assignment, which, after reading the book, I agree is important for Tip’s hilarious though slightly annoyed voice, like she’s going to tell you what happened because she has to, not because she’s all that jazzed about sharing. Still, the only thing this sentence makes me wonder is “What the heck is Smekday?”, which, luckily, was a good enough reason to keep reading the book, since I really enjoyed it!

So, there you go. If you want to sell your book to me, it’d be a good idea to start it in the middle of the action and save any tiresome scene setting or description for later. I need to be caught off guard or your book will bore me. I’ll still finish it, but I might make fun of you on my blog.

2 responses to “First Sentence Test”

  1. Brian says:

    Awesome! The “number five” is a really amazing first sentence and I would totally read that book. Absolutely agree with your analysis of the surprise aspect there. Also, your blog post is super-exciting because Dirk Gently (and the sequel, Long Dark Tea-Time) were definitely my favorite Douglas Adams books, maybe partly also because of the horoscope but also because Dirk Gently is just a hilarious character and I am a total sucker for detectives.

    Finally, is that book cover supposed to look like an evil possessed demon girl with a cupcake? I thought the devil used apples… I find it much easier to not eat apples.

    • pladd says:

      Yeah, that is exactly what the cover is meant to imply! Her character is a pretty awesome version of a demon who literally just eats cupcakes the whole time and giggles a lot.

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