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Starting off on the right foot…

Obviously I’m new at the being published thing, and relatively new at the blogging thing, too, but I’ve learned a lot over the years from reading people’s writing and publishing blogs – and obviously from reading and writing fiction as well – and I’m hoping that maybe I can give just a little bit back. With that in mind, a couple of links:

First, over on J.A. Konrath’s blog we have How Not To Start a Story . And then, over on Sherryl Clark’s blog we have a five-day workshop on the same subject but with the opposite slant, starting with Good Beginnings – Day 1 .

Both make excellent points about the subject, but not all of the people leaving comments can seem to agree on what makes a good first sentence. There’s also some dissension over whether or not the first sentence is indicative of the quality of the entire story, or if a good story can survive a bad beginning.

My own favorite first sentence is from The Gunslinger by Stephen King: "The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed." To me, this is an absolutely brilliant first sentence, because it gives you the protagonist, the antagonist, sets up the conflict, and gives a vivid mental picture, all in 12 simple words. That’s a sentence that does a whole lot of work, and a sentence that works is important. Especially when it’s the first sentence. (And even more so if it were the first sentence of a short story.)

An example of a first sentence that other people think is good, but that doesn’t work for me, is from Neuromancer by William Gibson: "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." Now I’m sure some people would say that this isn’t a good sentence because it’s not action, and/or you should never start a story by describing the weather, but that’s not the problem I have with it. I have a problem with it because I’m not sure how to envision a television tuned to a dead channel. In the old days of television antennae, I would assume this was supposed to be "snow", that black & white fuzz that you got when a broadcast station was too far away for you to receive anything. But I’ve never seen a sky that looked anything like that. And in the case of cable television, I’m not sure what a dead channel looks like. (In my house, we went straight from antenna to satellite dish.) This probably sounds nitpicky, but my point is, especially in the first sentence, an image should be vivid, and it should be specific. There shouldn’t be room for interpretation. When you read that sentence you should know what you’re supposed to be seeing, you shouldn’t have to guess. The same thing can be said about the first sentence in Uglies by Scott Westerfield: "The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit." Again, I don’t know how to visualize the color of cat vomit, and not because I haven’t seen it before. I’ve seen far too much of it, in my opinion, and it always looks different depending on what my furry friend has been eating recently, or how much of the hairball he’s actually managed to yack up. Or maybe I’m just being far too picky.

What do you think? What’s your favorite first sentence and why? Can a story start off bad and get better? Or does a bad beginning guarantee a bad ending?

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  1. Michael De Kler

    Hey Shayne, excellent question. It’s so hard to name just one, but a couple that stand out for me are Richard Laymon’s “Island”, which begins, “Today, the yacht exploded”, and the Tim Lebbon novella, “White”, that begins with “We found the first body two days before christmas.”

    Now, neither of these tell you a whole lot. We don’t see any of the characters, and don’t really get a mental picture of the scene or setting. But man, it sure as hell lets you know that you’re probably about to read something interesting, something with action and major conflict.

    I’m a big fan of those opening sentences that ‘tell you a lot’ (i.e., The Gunslinger); as writers, we can appreciate the skill it takes in crafting those. But sometimes you just can’t beat one of those ‘smack you across the face’ kind of openings that wake you up, pull you in, and set you off on a wild ride.

    I’ve seen plenty of great stories with bad beginnings, and plenty of bad stories with great beginnings. But let’s face it, as readers, we have limited time we’re willing to put into a work of fiction. We know that for every bad story or novel, there’s probably something better waiting on deck. So unless you can consistently grab the reader’s attention with an interesting opening, you can write all the great stories in the world, but they just may not get read.

    Aug 05, 2008 @ 12:18 am


  2. Ian Rogers

    Here’s a couple of my favourite hookers (as opening lines are sometimes called):

    “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

    1984, by George Orwell

    “When I was quite small I would sometimes dream of a city — which was strange because it began before
    I even knew what a city was.”

    They Chrysalids, by John Wyndham

    Aug 09, 2008 @ 9:20 am


  3. Shayne

    Michael, I like those two, especially Tim Lebbon’s. They definitely fall into the ‘smack you across the face’ category. And I think you’re right, you really can’t beat that kind of hook. A wild ride, after all, really is the best kind.

    Ian, I’ve never heard them called hookers before, only hooks. Although that could certainly lead to some interesting conversations. :) I’ve never read 1984 – although with an opening line like that I may have to now – but I loved The Chrysalids. It also has the distinction of being one of the very few books that I read for high school that I actually liked.

    Aug 10, 2008 @ 10:02 am


  4. Jess

    Hi, Shayne! Thanks for stopping by my blog. I’m a HUGE fan of the Dubric novels, so please can we be friends?!? :D

    I agree with you about the Gunslinger and Neuromancer quotes for the exactly same reasons. See? We need to be friends.

    And total congrats on the story sale!! Isn’t it a rush? Welcome to the blogosphere. Have I seen you before Sherryl’s workshop? Are you a PBW regular?

    Aug 10, 2008 @ 6:40 pm


  5. Shayne

    Hi, Jess. No problem. And yes, I think we should be friends. :)

    I’m not surprised that people like The Gunslinger hook, but I’m glad to hear that you agree with me about Neuromancer. After I wrote the entry I started wondering if I sounded like a pedantic tool for saying what I did.

    Thanks for the congrats, and the welcome. Yes, it’s a total rush. And no, you probably haven’t seen me around too much, unless you caught the one or two comments I’ve left on Tam’s blog. Other than that, I read PBW on a semi-regular basis, but I don’t think I’ve ever commented there.

    Aug 10, 2008 @ 8:03 pm


  6. Ian Rogers

    That’s funny, Shayne, because The Chrysalids was one of the very few books I read in high school and actually liked.

    Back before I got into writing, I was into film, and I always thought that one day I would do an adaptation of The Chrysalids. It would be my “book” movie, since so many directors seem to do at least one. :)

    Aug 12, 2008 @ 7:15 am

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