In life as in literature, there is nothing like making a great first impression.
It is hard to overstress the importance of beginnings. I once heard the Booker Prize-winning Nigerian writer Ben Okri say that if the first sentence of a book does not grab him, he is liable to close the book then and there. A bit extreme, perhaps, but it does illustrate how crucial beginnings are.
There are all kinds of first sentences — atmospheric, interrogative, informational, reflective, action-packed… One thing, however, all of them have in common is that they set the tone for the book that follows. This month let us look at some first sentences to see how they help forge an effective beginning.
Haruki Murakami’s novel Sputnik Sweetheart begins: “In the spring of her twenty-second year, Sumire fell in love for the first time in her life.” Over the course of this short sentence, Murakami introduces us to his main character and tells us that she is a young woman of 22. He also lets us know that this is going to be a novel about first love. While most of the sentence is literal, the use of the word “spring” lends it a deeper meaning. Instead of “spring”, Murakami could have said “April” which would have been a more accurate reflection of exactly when Sumire fell in love for the first time. However, he chose to use the more metaphoric “spring”. The season of spring, in many cultures, symbolizes passion. The use of the word here sets the tone for the extreme passion that Sumire goes on to feel for the object of her affection.
Beginning in the middle
On the other hand, instead of beginning with a statement, you can begin right in the midst of action. Take a look at this first sentence from Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity: “The trawler plunged into the angry swells of the dark furious sea like an awkward animal trying desperately to break out of an impenetrable swamp.” A sentence like that instantly summons images of darkness, frenetic action, and the trawler being tossed about haplessly in the midst of it all. It isn’t surprising that Ludlum wrote thrillers. You would hardly expect a story of first love to ensue after reading such a beginning.
Then there is this first sentence from the iconic Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” The most interesting thing here is how Garcia Marquez instantly places the reader in two time frames. He is going to tell us about what happened on that afternoon. At the same time, however, he is inserting the burning question — how did Aureliano Buendia come to face a firing squad? — in the reader’s mind. Furthermore, Aureliano Buendia is being taken to “discover” ice. By using the word “discover”, Garcia Marquez captures the sense of wonder someone feels at seeing ice for the first time. Since the discovery was made many years ago when Aureliano Buendia was a boy, the whole effect of it on him would be magical.
From a completely different sensibility comes this first sentence from the prolific British Asian writer Hanif Kureishi’s novel Intimacy: “It is the saddest night, for I am leaving and not coming back.” Unlike Garcia Marquez’s two time frames, Kureishi is firmly entrenched in one time frame — the night before the parting. The despondent tone of the sentence instantly communicates the mental state of the narrator. He is suffused with regret and guilt, and is clearly talking about leaving loved ones. The tone suggests a failed marriage, and reading on, one is not surprised to learn that the narrator has decided to leave his wife and children the next morning for a younger woman.
Finally, here is the first sentence of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children: “I was born in the city of Bombay…once upon a time.” The sentence is, at once, a play on words, cleverly inverting the old way of beginning a story: “Once upon a time…” It also places the novel in Bombay and, consequently, in India. Finally, it tells us that the novel is going to take the form of a fictional autobiography. Only in this case it is an autobiography that tells us about the life of a person, as well as a country.
These are just five examples of beginnings. There are several more, and it would be worth your while to study them. Think of the beginning of a novel like a serve in tennis. It is, perhaps, the only time where you have the reader’s undivided attention. Hence, everything is in your hands. You can hit an ace, which will allow you to win over the reader. Or you can lose it all by hitting a fault.