Sunday, October 9, 2011

Opening Sentences

By Bonnie Stanard

We’ve had the lesson hammered into our heads that the opening of a book has to hook the reader. It’s so important San Jose State University holds the Bulwer-Lytton competition every year to name the worst opening sentence for a possible novel (

According to Brian Klem in Writers Digest* we should also establish tone in the first sentence. His definition of tone goes a long way to explain something that’s hard to describe. He says tone in a book is like a soundtrack in a movie. I can relate to that. The background music is something you’re more likely to notice if it’s bad. When it’s good, you’re too engrossed in the movie to notice it.

As I surfed first sentences of books, I wondered if we could pick out best sellers by their first sentences. I’ve come up with six sentences, three from best sellers. The remaining three are not best sellers. To get them, I searched titles for the word “dark,” which has to be one of the most overworked words in English literature. Surprisingly, the search turned up a number of Stephen King’s books among the 59,500 findings.

Which of the following first sentences are from best sellers? Can you detect a tone? Klem describes tone as the author’s attitude toward his subject, i.e. grave, amused, scientific, intimate, aggrieved, authoritative. I would add angry, laudatory, repelled.

1. “So, you would like to know your future?” the old fortune teller asked.
2. Mae Mobley was born on a early Sunday morning in August, 1960.
3. Under normal circumstances, Charlie Flint would have consumed all the media
coverage of the trial of Philip Carling’s killers.
4. While a late-summer storm bashed against her single skinny window, Lieutenant Eve Dallas wished for murder.
5. Vincent was feeling tired but instantly snapped awake the moment he thought he heard a slight swishing sound against stone.
6. As she gazed out the bay window in her bedroom, Mary McAllister knew this night would be her last.

Finding the winners here is more of an exercise in identifying the losers. I have low expectations of Number 1, which is about as innovative as “It was a dark and stormy night.” Any fault, such as one unnecessary word, signals that the author is careless with words, which is my view of numbers 3 (all) and 5 (which deserves a bad writing award). If I were Number 5’s editor, I’d suggest: "Vincent felt tired but snapped awake when he heard a swishing against stone." Add another negative to Number 3 for opening with an awkward conditional past perfect verb. If you haven’t figured out already, even numbered sentences are best sellers.

And tone? It’s hard to credit these sentences with any tone. What can you tell from the first note of a soundtrack?

Whatever my attitude toward my characters, I try not to judge them. Some of them behave badly, but it’s not up to me to tell the reader they’re scoundrels. Whatever the foibles of our characters, if we care about them, our readers will too. That goes a long way in setting a tone that engages the reader.

Book titles and authors: (1) Dark Tomorrows by J.L. Bryan, A. Hocking; (2) The Help by Kathryn Stockett; (3) Trick of the Dark by Val McDermid; (4) New York to Dallas by J.D. Robb; (5) Storm of Prophecy: Book 1, Dark Awakening by Michael Von Werner, F. Diroma; (6) The Mill River Recluse by Darcie Chan
*7 Ways to Perfect Your Writing “Tone” by Brian Klems, on Writer’s Digest website (

1 comment:

monjon said...

Thanks for all that research, Bonnie. It tells me I should always have a female name in my first sentence.