Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Bad Beginning

There's nothing more important to any story than its first sentence. It sets the tone for the rest of what will happen, and, in many cases, it is what catches the editor's eyes. But what distinguishes a good sentence from a bad sentence?

Let's first take a look at some bad first sentences.

- Once there were two little penguins who were best friends.
This is the classic telling, not showing. Why not instead put the two penguins in a situation so that we can see that they are best friends?

-Once upon a time, in an enchanted forest, unicorns ran freely, trolls and elves played leapfrog over toadstools.
Not only is this sentence grammatically incorrect, but it gives no sense of where the story is going. Is the setting more important than the characters?

-This is the story of a peacock named Percy.
Why do we need to be told whom the story is about? Why not tell us the story?

-Oscar the owl lives in a forest along with his friends Ronald the robin and Oscar's mate Opal.
Just tell me the story! I don't need to know where he or his friends live and definitely not in one big sentence.

-Maryanne likes to play with her new hamster whose name is Harold.
This one is close to good as it tells us something about Maryanne, but the aside telling us her hamster's name diminishes the sentence.

These first sentences show not only a lack of creativity, but a small understanding of the dynamics of storytelling. We all can fall prey to a bad sentence, no one is immune. That is why good revision is always important. You can always change what you wrote later.

So what makes a good first sentence? One that catches your eye and leads directly into the story. Look at some of your favorite books. How do they start? What makes them effective in your opinion? Why do others not work?

Here are some good ones:

"If your teacher has to die, August isn't a bad time of the year for it."
-The Teacher's Funeral: A Comedy in Three Parts by Richard Peck.
Not only is this line funny, but it sets up the rest of the story involving the young narrator.

"Emma-Jean Lazarus knew very well that a few of the seventh-grade girls at William Gladstone Middle School were criers."
-Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree by Lauren Tarshis.
This not only tells us who the main character is, but it gives us a sense of her character and a hint of how the story will unfold.

"My lady and I are being shut up in a tower for seven years."
-The Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale.
That says it all right there, doesn't it?