The First Sentence


The first sentence of one’s creative work, be it novel or short story, has always been a matter of great concern and importance. The author wants to “hook” the reader, as it were, with that first great sentence. An iconic first sentence that comes to mind is Tolstoy’s much quoted lead in to Anna Karenina “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” And who doesn’t know Jane Austen’s great first sentence of Pride and Prejudice? “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Many centuries after Austen and Tolstoy, the first sentence to one’s narrative has become an obsession. “You must hook the reader. The emerging writer is inundated with this directive. As a matter of fact, it isn’t just the story or novel that must have the great first sentence hook, it’s also the query letters, the letters to the editors, on applications to conferences, to all persons involved in the world of letters! You must hook them, as you would a fish.

With this in mind, I culled from my own library a number of novels written in the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries. Most of the works are canonical. A few of the more recent works may end up so, who can say? Harold Bloom thinks he can, but that’s another story. I’ve listed the first sentence of each novel. The novels come from all over. Can you identify the novel by its first line?  I’ll post the answers in a future post.  Good luck!

  1. 1801—I have just returned from a visit to my landlord—the solitary neighbor that I shall be troubled with.
  2. Late in the afternoon of a chilly day in February, two gentlemen were sitting alone over their wine, in a well-furnished dining parlor, in the town of P—, in Kentucky.
  3. When Caroline Meeber boarded the afternoon train for Chicago, her total outfit consisted of a small trunk, a cheap imitation alligator-skin satchel, a small lunch in a paper box, and a yellow leather snap purse, containing her ticket, a scrap of paper with her sister’s address in Van Buren Street, and four dollars in money.
  4. Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton.
  5. Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.
  6. If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
  7. Ogata Shingo, his brow slightly furrowed, his lips slightly parted, wore an air of thought.
  8. There is a pile of clothing on the side of the train tracks.
  9. 124 was spiteful.
  10. There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.
  11. For a long time I would go to bed early.
  12. Renowned curator Jacques Sauniere staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.
  13. He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed stare which made you think of a charging bull.
  14. It goes a long way back, some twenty years.
  15. I have never been what you’d call a crying man.
  16. Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.
  17. 3 May. Bistritz.–Left Munich at 8:35 P.M., on 1st May, arriving at Vienna early next morning; should have arrived at 6:46, but train was an hour late.
  18. On an exceptionally hot evening early in July a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as though in hesitation, towards K. bridge.
  19. In the days when the spinning-wheels hummed busily in the farmhouses — and even great ladies, clothed in silk and thread-lace, had their toy spinning-wheels of polished oak — there might be seen in districts far away among the lanes, or deep in the bosom of the hills, certain pallid undersized men, who, by the side of the brawny country-folk, looked like the remnants of a disinherited race.
  20. The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.

One thought on “The First Sentence

  1. calmkate

    Only 5 I can be sure of HP! Recognise 3 others but couldn’t name them. Thanks for showing me how much reading I need to catch up on, look forward to reading your answers so that I can get started.

    Liked by 1 person


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