For the last few weeks I’ve been planning a novel and have enough ingredients in place to make a start on the writing – a man who drives a tourist tram round a fairly untouristy Mediterranean town, the woman he falls in love with, a collection of Greek Gods who think that sophisticated, 21st Century Europeans have ignored them for long enough, and a long quest from the south of France to the summit of Mount Olympus via the Underworld.
I have the characters, some of the settings, the basis of a plot, a few key scenes. Now all I need is the first sentence and I’m away. Someone (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, I think) said that the first sentence was the most important, not just because it can hook or unhook a reader, but because it sets the tone for the whole book.
Take three examples:
I had always thought that a person born blind and given sight later on in life through the miracles of modern medicine would feel reborn. – Eleanor Rigby, by Douglas Coupland
The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy; he wis trembling. – Trainspotting, by Irvine Welsh
An hour and forty-five minutes before Nazneen’s life began – began as it would proceed for quite some time, that is to say uncertainly – her mother Rupban felt an iron fist squeeze her belly. – Brick Lane, by Monica Ali.
The voice and tone of these first sentences determines how the rest of the book will sound. “The rest is easy,” said Marquez. I know that’s crap.
I was thinking about this too when I picked up a few Carl Hiaasen novels. His first sentences are interesting:
On the morning of December 1, a man named Theodore Bellamy went swimming into the Atlantic Ocean off South Florida – “Tourist Season”.
On the morning of July 6, two hours before dawn, a man named Robert Clinch rolled out of bed and rubbed the sleep from his eyes – “Double Whammy”.
On the morning of April 24, an hour past dawn, a man named Palmer Stoat shot a rare African black rhinoceros – “Sick Puppy”.
On the third of January, a leaden blustery day, two tourists from Covington, Tennessee, removed their sensible shoes to go strolling on the beach at Key Biscayne – “Skin Tight”.
On the afternoon of November 25, a woman named JoJayne Lucks drove to the Grab N’Go minimart in Grange, Florida, and purchased spearmint Certs, unwaxed dental floss and one ticket for the state Lotto – “Lucky You”.
I suppose once you find a winning formula, the temptation is to stick at it.