Your voice, your first sentence


Did you know that when you open a book to read, the first sentence has a specific design? Writers need to capture your attention and not let go of you until you have finished reading their book.
Here are a few first sentences from books that are considered the best in the literary world.
“A woman has written yet another story that is not interesting, though it has a hurricane in it, and a hurricane usually promises to be interesting.” — Lydia Davis, “The Center of the Story.”
This next first sentence would make me want to learn more about Gwen. “Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon, with an 8-ball of coke in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat.” — Dennis Lehane, “Until Gwen.”
This first sentence definitely gives another kind of voice. “Nobody died that year.” — Renata Adler, “Speedboat.”
It was my week to teach at the writers’ group. The lesson would be on how to write a strong first sentence. Authors take us on a journey that starts by providing a description that lacks distinctive characteristics. Some use a hook, something that jars us or captures our attention, while others may pose a question that appeals to our curiosity.
The first sentence of a story should take on a specific voice, a tone that leans us towards an understanding of the kind of book we are reading. For example, drama, humor, mystery, suspense or romance.
I asked My Sweet Al, “What do you expect in 2019?” He quickly replied, “There is so much in life that we don’t know.” It seemed like a perfect first sentence if he were writing a book. In truth, I learn more and more about him each and every day.
In life, our story is written as we live it and in its own unique voice. We may not always like how it reads, but it is what it is. For some there is drama, others have a lot of humor, but all in their own familiar voice.
I decided to pass around a list of the best first-sentences from 50 novels while at my writers’ group. Then I passed around a how-to instruction for writing a strong first sentence.
I asked each writer in the group to write down one or two words to describe themselves or where they felt they were in life. Words that could be used as a working title if they were writing a book. After that, I asked them to write the first line for a novel, a story about their life.
As expected, the first few descriptive words each person wrote and their subsequent first sentences reflected their own unique voice. They were sentences full of tone and texture that brought definition to their life and captured my attention.
“I came into this world squeezed between two dynamic personalities. One clutching the status of elder, the other charming and favored.” My place — “Peacemaker.”
“Only yesterday, my 9-year-old, tomboy-self slid down Ellenberger Hill in the dark of night screaming my pleasure.” — “A Time of Transformation.”
“In seeing the foibles of others, I’ve found the joke is on me.” — “Irony.”
When I returned home, My Sweet Al asked how things went at the writers’ group.
“I think they understood my teaching. It’s important that we know how the story of our lives read.”
“It wouldn’t be interesting to me. I can’t get into that far-out stuff. It’s like when you talk to me in Greek. It doesn’t make any sense, I don’t like it.”
Wow! I had hit a nerve in my Sweet Al. I explained to him that this was interesting to me because I’m realizing that I am writing my own story, a story as I live it. I’m starting to understand what my DNA tells me about myself, how I’m wired and why I make certain decisions, even if with a pioneer’s tenacity.
No, my voice is not warm and fuzzy, not nurturing, nor will it ever be. And I certainly don’t have to wait for a hurricane to make my life interesting. The ideas in my head are enough of a whirlwind for me.
I wonder what I would title the story of my life and how the first sentence would read. Maybe something like this. “An artist whose hands are held by The Master, skills of the ordinary, but empowered to create with a broad-brush stroke of color.” — “Blank Canvas.”
Final brushstroke: The best writings are those that say, “Based on a true story.” While some tell a tale of being whipped up by life’s hurricanes’ others, a peaceful calm with no storm in sight. How does your story open? More importantly, where will your story take you in 2019? Will you walk through tomorrow’s pages with your same familiar voice, or perhaps discover a new voice that takes you on a journey beyond your own imagination?
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