Continuing from yesterday’s post, I’m looking at the first lines from some of my favorite stories to see why they work. I picked stories that aren’t very recent, and are either by people I don’t know or by writers I met after reading the story. If I do it again, I may relax that rule, but it seemed like a good way to start out. I only used stories that are online so you can go see how the story progresses if you wish. Again, if this turns out to be interesting to me or other folks, I may do more.
“North Park is a backwater tucked into a loop of the Kaw River: pale dirt and baked grass, aging playground equipment, silver-leafed cottonwoods, underbrush, mosquitoes and gnats blackening the air at dusk.”
Obviously, this sentence is scene setting. Kij makes it beautiful with her specific details: “pale dirt,” “baked grass,” “aging playground equipment,” “silver-leafed cotton-woods,” “mosquitoes,” “gnats.” Almost all of the details evoke slow decay–“backwater,” “baked grass,” “aging.” Insects don’t gather in the air so much as dirty it–“blackening” the dusk. The evoked colors are washed out–pale, baked, silver–we can possibly also include the old metal and rust of the playground equipment. The silver-leafed cottonwoods are the exception here–the color is on the grey/black spectrum, yes, but the tree still sounds beautiful. This is decay, but not hopeless decay.
The sentence also establishes the academic tone. This is the kind of sentence assembled by someone speaking authoritatively about a subject, not describing their sensory impressions of the world. The phrasing is formal and complex, and the use of the colon an even more significant marker.
“Like Daughter” by Tananarive Due
“I got the call in the middle of the week, when I came wheezing home from my uphill late-afternoon run.”
There’s definitely a mystery here — what’s the call?
“Wheezing” gives us a sense of the character’s age, perhaps–at least that she is unlikely to be a very young athlete–since she is still wheezing even though her uphill run is regular enough to be referred to as “my late-afternoon run.” She’s athletic, but in a real-person-exercising sort of way.
Other than that, I don’t have much. It’s fine. It’s an appealing sentence, tightly written, and I’m happy to move on with it.
“Fourteen Experiments in Postal Delivery” by John Schoffstall
“I got your voice mail.”
Conversational. Establishes a relationship between the reader and the narrator immediately — “I” and “you” (and also suggests the reader isn’t actually the “you” being addressed. Is there a term for that?). The questions it poses are obvious — who is speaking? Who am “I?” What voicemail?
I suppose, given that it’s the story it is, it also sets up the reader for some irony–that this story about the postal mail begins with a voice mail.
Perfectly reasonable first sentence.
“Little Faces” by Vonda McIntyre
“The blood woke Yalnis.”
I really like this sentence. Utterly simple, utterly direct. Again, the mystery is obvious–what is the blood? The fact that Yalnis doesn’t know only makes it more urgent. It drives the reader rapidly to the next line.
There’s not a lot to say about it. It’s just good.
“In the House of the Seven Librarians” by Ellen Klages
“Once upon a time, the Carnegie Library sat on a wooded bluff on the east side of town: red brick and fieldstone, with turrets and broad windows facing the trees.”
Another setting sentence. We’ve got the titular library, and the reinforcement from this sentence that it is important. Actually, that’s misleading. It’s not a *titular* library–in fact, the library is called a house. Backing up to the title, which the reader has as a cue along with the first sentence, the emphasis is on location. This isn’t the story of the seven librarians, but rather the library–but the library is defined by its relationships. It is the “house” of the librarians; the story is what happens inside it.
So, moving back. Now this sentence is reaffirming what the title suggests–setting is vital here. The story takes place inside; the first sentence tells us about the outside. I suppose, if we want to overextend a metaphor, we could say it’s the cover of the story.
The descriptions are all aligned to evoke the kind of library readers sigh over. “Wooded bluff” “broad windows facing the trees” — a picturesque, beautiful location, which the broad windows suggest is filled with light. Let’s be honest, this is reader fanservice. Personally, I’m good with that.
“The Lifecycle of Software Objects” by Ted Chiang
Her name is Ana Alvarado, and she’s having a bad day.
This is a fine sentence. It tells us what we need to know and suggests we get on with things. We have a who (Ana Alvarado) and a what (she’s having a bad day). Next, we’ll get the why. Almost journalistic.
It also sets up a narrator who has a personality separate from that of the characters. It might be another character, or it might just be the narrative perspective from which the story is told, but this sentence creates an immediate distancing effect. The reader is observing, not participating.
From this, I learned a couple things.
- It’s a lot easier to do a textual analysis on your own first sentences than other people’s. Although:
- It might be easier to do textual analysis on stories I’d read more recently.
- I don’t seem to select for first sentences particularly when I’m choosing my favorite stories. These are all good, but only a couple dazzle. That’s not surprising. A good first sentence is a tiny element of a story, nice but unnecessary. I might try tracking really good first sentences, though, if I remember (I won’t).