When you’re training to be a writer, there are a number of lessons you unavoidably hear a million times.
Show; don’t tell. Your characters must be dynamic to be real. And, perhaps most annoying, you have to hook your reader in the first sentence.
I’d like to give the non-writer readers of mine a minute to think over the implications of that.
And starting every piece of writing with, “Suddenly, the killer lunged at him, an unmasked blade glistening in his white-knuckled fist” is not an option.
It is, to put it mildly, an insane amount of pressure that has often stopped me from writing anything altogether.
And even though I will say that this oft repeated rule has made me a bit of a connoisseur in terms of first (and last) sentences, I am not really a believer in judging a book or article immediately by the first few words.
In fact, I think that if everyone decided whether or not to read a book based solely on the first sentence, a lot of incredible writing would go unnoticed.
“It was a pleasure to burn.”
“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.”
“Call me Ishmael.”
I mean, how often are you going to burble up something like that?
No, some books need more time. Of course, I’m also one of those people who hates to leave books unfinished, even if I don’t like them. I’ve read a few horrendous chick lit stories in my time, just because I had a few hours to kill once and then I was in too deep to get away.
I recently read a book that was quite good, but I never would have known that if I hadn’t stuck it out through at least the first half, which was a bit slow and cumbersome. But the reward for my loyalty was an edge-of-your seat kind of mystery.
I guess you could say that truly great writing will have the whole package; an engaging beginning, an intriguing middle, and a fulfilling ending. But I guess I’ll take two out of three.