Brand building through storytelling

My favourite first sentences

AtonementLove made me do it. Enraptured by the memory of reading Atonement,I had to see the movie, even though I knew it could not possibly capture the layered nuances of Ian McEwan’s prose. Then I went straight home and pulled the book off the shelf to savour once again what the movie had missed. There it was in the very sentence, captures the entire emotional world of the fanciful, driven, almost dangerously gifted child whose spur-of-the-moment lie is about to destroy two lives and change the course of her own:

The play—for which Briony had designed the posters, programmes and tickets, contructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and lined the collection box in red crepe paper—was written by her in a two-day tempest of composition, causing her to miss a breakfast and a lunch.

Now there’s a marvel of a sentence. It saunters, it twirls, yet it quivers with implications. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ian McEwan spent hours, perhaps a day, fine-tuning these opening lines. The perfect opening sentence does more than pull the reader into the story with a mood, a voice and quite possibly a character. In the very beginning, when it’s not even clear that there will be a book or readers, the first sentence must captivate the writer, who has to love and believe in this tale to carry on with the long, lonely work of telling it.

If you’ve explored this site, chances are you know about my favourite books. Here’s a celebration of my favourite first sentences—a baker’s dozen of them (counting Atonement), all culled from novels now sitting within arm’s reach. No doubt I’ve forgotten some gems, and I didn’t even look at short stories. But I have to start somewhere, so here goes:

Early on the morning of my interview, I woke up and saw my dead sister.—Barbara Trapido, The Travelling Hornplayer

I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.—Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex

The trouble with fellatio, in my view, is its lack of onomatopoeia.—Danielle Wood,Rosie Little’s Cautionary Tales for Girls

It was the youngest who gave all the trouble.—L.T. Meade, Bad Little Hannah

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.—Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.—Louisa May Alcott, Little Women

After she died, everything tasted worse.—Katrina Onstad, How Happy to Be

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.—J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

There was such a long pause that I wondered whether my Mamma and my Papa were ever going to speak to one another again.—Rebecca West, The Fountain Overflows

By nightfall the headlines would be reporting devastation.—Shirley Hazzard, The Transit of Venus

All this happened, more or less.—Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five

As a child Trudi Montag thought everyone knew what went on inside others.—Ursula Hegi, Stones from the River

I have loved all of these books at various stages of my life, and I’m betting you’ve loved some of them, too. But I have yet to meet anyone who knows Bad Little Hannah, a poignant and remorseless children’s novel published in Britain in 1897. When I was a bad little girl, this book gave me hope, despite the absence of a happy ending. Some kids are destined to be rebels, and that’s just the way things are. Unlike most grownups,  L.T. Meade had the courage to admit it.

Posted by Rona

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