Opening Sentences: Great Beginnings

There’s nothing quite like the first sentence in a book. After all, it’s the first. Numero Uno. Isn’t that what we all do, in bookstores and libraries? We scan the cover, read the flap, crack it open and read the first few lines, maybe a paragraph or two, and . . . DECIDE.

My all-time favorite opening sentence comes from E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, and I know it (almost) by heart:

“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

How do you NOT read the next sentence? An ax! Daddy? I’m alarmed, almost as much as Fern. Where IS he going with that ax?

Here’s some other first lines, taken almost at random. The list is not exhaustive or well-researched. I’d love to see more contributions in the comments section:

The day Shiloh come, we’re having us a big Sunday dinner. (Shiloh, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor)

Again, wow. Those words, “come” (not “came”) and “us” signaling a rural voice and setting, a voice we’ll grow to love, to root for, a voice that will pull us all the way through.

Brian Robeson stared out the window of the small plane at the endless green nothern wilderness below. (Hatchet, Gary Paulsen)

Nothing fancy here. But again: setting, character, and foreshadowing in one simple sentence. A grammatical aside: I love the lack of commas in that description of the endless green nothern wilderness.

Here’s some more I like. I’ll save my writerly observations for, I hope, a later discussion:

Under a chill, gray sky, two riders jogged across the turf. (The High King, Lloyd Alexander)

Miyax pushed back the hood of her sealskin parka and looked at the Arctic sun. (Julie of the Wolves, Jean Craighead George)

It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened. (The Giver, Lois Lowry)

Bradley Chalkers sat at his desk in the back of the room — last seat, last row. (There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom, Louis Sacher)

On a warm October night in Chicago, three deliveries were made in the same neighborhood. (Chasing Vermeer, Blue Balliett)

My name is India Opal Buloni, and last summer my daddy, the preacher, sent me to the store for a box of macaroni-and-cheese, some white rice, and two tomatoes and I came back with a dog. (Because of Winn-Dixie, Kate DiCamillo)

A long time ago, when all the grandfathers and grandmothers of today were little boys and little girls or very small babies, or perhaps not even born, Pa and Ma and Mary and Laura and Baby Carrie left their little house in the Big Woods of Wisconsin. (Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder)

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling — ever heard of it?)

Personally, I’ve never written a great first line — too hard, I guess — though I like the one that began Ghost Cat and Other Spooky Tales:

“Aaaaaaccck!” Mother screamed.

The book I’m revising now, Bystander (Feiwel & Friends, Fall, 2009), begins — as of now — this way:

The first time Eric Hayes ever saw him, David Hallenback was running, if you could call it that, running in a halting, choppy-stepped, stumpy-legged shamble, slowing down to look back over his shoulder, stumbling forward, pausing to catch his breath, then lurching forward again.

It is my hope that this post leads to some kind of discussion, responses, comments. So please — readers, teachers, students, librarians, dogs who can type — what’s your favorite opening sentence? Maybe we can grow this into something. Create a list. Vote. Any students out there?

What makes a great first sentence, anyway?

10 comments

  1. Karen says:

    I love this concept!! I envision using your blog as a place to start a mini-lesson in writing workshop. it will be such a great tool for kids to see how you think, and your examples!!

    I posted your info on our site, so I’m passing the word along. Thanks for the email!

  2. Joyce says:

    In an effort to encourage my third graders to move beyond “Once upon a time,” I asked the students to bring in a book with a great lead. After the students shared many examples, there was one girl remaining, who had kept her book hidden behind her back. She pulled out a pink, leather bound book, opened to the first page and read, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” I think everyone stopped breathing for at least 30 seconds! I am starting my 19th year of teaching full time and the memory of that moment still gives me goosebumps!

  3. jimmy says:

    Ding-ding-ding! We have a winner! Great story, Joyce, that’s for sharing it with us. And to think that book wasn’t even discussed by the Newbery Committee.

  4. Maria says:

    I am a 5th grade teacher and have printed this off to share with my class in writer’s workshop. We will begin collecting. Thanks for the jumpstart!

  5. jimmy says:

    I would love to see (and share) some examples of great opening sentences proposed by your students. It would be instructive, I think, to read their reasons why. So that would be a good format: Sentence, Author, Title, and Brief Comment on Sentence.

    Thanks. I hope this works for you.

  6. Maria says:

    I love this idea thanks for organizing my thinking. I would be thrilled to share them with you when ever we get back to school. We’ve been out for two days with a power outages.

  7. flo says:

    this has been so helpful with work to be done!

  8. Carl says:

    James,

    I agree with you totally about first sentences. Here is a great one:

    In Santiago, the capital of the kingdom of Chile, at the moment of the great earthquake of 1647 in which many thousands lost their lives, a young Spaniard called Jeronimo Rugera was standing beside one of the pillars in the prison to which he had been committed on a criminal charge, and was about to hang himself.

  9. Sharon says:

    He wasn’t always a bad kitty.

    Bad Kitty – I don’t remember the author right now.

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