The First Sentence: part 2


In a post a few weeks back, I listed twenty opening sentences from novels the world over from late eighteenth century on, without titles. I promised the titles in a future post, which is this post. Here are the first lines one more time and below are listed the corresponding titles, author, and publication dates.

  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. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1852.
  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.  Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser, 1900.
  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.


1. Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte, 1847.

2. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1852.

3. Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser, 1900.

4. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway, 1926.

5. Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling, 1998.

6. Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger, 1945.

7. Sound of the Mountain, Yasunari Kawabata, 1949.

8. The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins, 2015.

9. Beloved, Toni Morrison, 1994.

10. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte, 1847.

11. Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust, 1913.

12. The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown, 2003.

13. Lord Jim, Joseph Conrad, 1928.

14. Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison, 1952.

15. 11/22/63, Stephen King, 2011.

16. David Copperfield, Charles Dickens, 1850.

17. Dracula, Bram Stoker, 1897.

18. Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1866.

19. Silas Marner, George Eliot, 1861.

20. The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane, 1871.

So there you have it.

What interested me most in this exercise was the fact that the first sentence of several canonical novels is really not so interesting. The first sentence of Jane Eyre for instance: There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. If that were the first sentence of a 2015 novel, would I be “hooked?” Not to the extent that the first sentence of The Girl On The Train hooked me solid. There is a pile of clothing on the side of the train tracks. I’m not trying to suggest one novel is better than the other…ridiculous thought, but I do wonder, as I have mentioned before, if the obsession with the first sentence “hook” isn’t a bit overdone.

It is also interesting that both the above sentences begin with the adverb there. In a recent do’s and don’ts of writing, it was emphatically stated that one should avoid beginning a sentence with “there.” Okay, well, it all goes back to the best advice ever. Go with what sounds right. Vague as hell, but I love it.

One thought on “The First Sentence: part 2

  1. nyt2010

    I have to say I agree, some novels have brilliant first lines that just hook you and reel you in, and then some others have plain awful ones, sometimes even a whole entire chapter of awfulness to start and you might persevere and love the book, but many lessor readers would just give up. I think when it comes to the classics from the 1800’s and before, there just weren’t many books around to compare them to, so they got away with stuff we just can’t any more. Show don’t tell was definitely not something Bronte was familiar with for sure!

    Liked by 1 person


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