My Favorite First Sentences

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I read a short story online recently that I loved but I noticed the first two sentences were the weakest sentences in the story–a grave mistake; those are the sentences you must hone to perfection above all others, except perhaps the last.

Then I remembered that I don’t do that.

Some first sentences I love:

There was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.
– C.S. Lewis, Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Humor and rapid characterization.  “Almost” hints at mercy, and at the redemption of Eustace that is to come.

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
– William Gibson, Neuromancer

Tells you so much about its high-tech, gray-souled world.

Mama died today.  Or maybe it was yesterday.
– Albert Camus, The Stranger

The speaker has a good reason for not knowing, but his ignorance and lack of concern foreshadows the fact that he’s a sociopath.

True! – nervous – very, very nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?
– Ed Poe, The Tell-Tale Heart

The stacatto pace, the broken and inverted grammatical structure, and, oh, yes, the denial of madness, hint at the speaker’s madness.

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed after him.
– Stephen King, The Gunslinger

The man in black is probably evil.  The gunslinger probably represents justice, or retribution.  There will be a chase.  There will be blood.  It will be black and white and red, not shades of gray.  It will not be made pretty with flowery prose.

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small, unregarded yellow sun.
– Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The description of part of the galaxy as “unfashionable” tells us that the galaxy, interstellar travel, all that, is old hat, and this story doesn’t give a damn about spaceships and ray guns except as tools for moving people long distances rapidly and killing them efficiently.  Its prominence and idiocy tells us this is a universe (or galaxy, at any rate) populated by silly, shallow people.  “Uncharted” tells us it is not written from the perspective of humans.  “Unregarded” tells us that no one in the universe will take us (or the protagonist) seriously.

Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its Outer Walls.  They sprawled over the sloping earth, each one halfway over its neighbor until, held back by the castle ramparts, the innermost of these hovels laid hold on the Great Walls, clamping themselves thereto like limpets to a rock.
– Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan

This is wrong, but catchy:

All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true.
– Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

These two sentences seem to be designed to make us uncomfortable. And that’s its power. For those who haven’t read this book the first chapter is a first person narrative from the POV of Kurt Vonnegut himself and the actual story doesn’t start until chapter 2. It’s Vonnegut telling us that we are reading a story and I think that was both an unusual and bold choice because generally, as readers, we want to forget that we are reading a novel. Vonnegut wants to unmoor us from our expectations of fiction (much like Billy Pilgrim was umoored from time).

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
– Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.  That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.
—Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885)

The first line establishes Huck’s humility.  The second is a humorous jab at its own author, and suggests Huck himself (being written by Twain) is about to stretch the truth some, and suggests that Twain’s books are “the truth, mainly,” despite being about fictional characters.  It also hints that Huck isn’t hung up on the exact literal truth, because he’s a deep thinker, and he understands after his adventure that there’s no such thing.

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.
—James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (1939)

Just kidding.  I hate this sentence.

Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face.
– Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen

Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu.
—Ha Jin, Waiting (1999)

The strangeness of this quote hints at the surrealism of life under the arbitrary, relentless, mindless tyranny of the Chinese communist party.

The sun rose slowly, as if it wasn’t sure it was worth the effort.
– Terry Pratchett, The Light Fantastic

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.
– Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

The year that Buttercup was born, the most beautiful woman in the world was a French scullery maid named Annette.
– William Goldman, The Princess Bride

This was buried around page 40, but should have opened the book:

There was a footpath leading across the fields to New Southgate, and I used to go there alone to watch the sunset and contemplate suicide. I did not, however, commit suicide, because I wished to know more of mathematics.
– Bertrand Russell, The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell (1951)

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.
—James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)

Shut up, Joyce.


What are your favorite first sentences?

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