2 October 2006

The first Sentence

Did you remember the first sentence that someone special in your life said to you?


Why is the first sentence so important? As a person, s/he impressed you and this image stays with you the whole life. As a book, it catches your interest, and you can never put it down until the last page. This is the craftmanship of writing. A powerful first line is a strong blow to its readers, and you may fall in love with the writer immediately as you may fall in love with a person.

How the writers open their books?

Ernst Hemingway starts from nowhere with this sentence: "Then there was the bad weather" in A Movable Feast. It was like a trap, you found yourself standing at the middle of the universe, across time, across geographical boundaries, without time without boundaries, because he breaks away from the rule of time, space and people.

Similarly, 莫言 in【生蹼的祖先們】 has his first character coming to the scene from nowhere, and the air is suspended, intriguing the readers to dig into it like a grave digger, "第二天凌晨太陽升起前約有十至十五分鐘光景,我行走在故鄉一片尚未開墾的荒地上。……我正在心裡思念著一個打過我兩個耳光的女人。我百思難解她為什麼要打我,因為我和她素不相識。」

Another way of open the scene is to start with an action, and this action is as banal as possible, but later you will see it as the core of the whole story.
In Mrs Dolloway, Virginia Woolf starts with "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself". This was a bomb to the literary scene when the book first appeared in 1925, not just in the sense that it focuses on a one-day-activity of Mrs Dolloway, but also the writing and this first sentence, which is so trivil that it bypassed the rhetorical announcement of all classical writings.

Talking about the great classics, nobody can forget the famous opening line from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." (see comment for complete quote). The power of this long first sentence is the doubleness, the pairing up, which was the theme and the structure of the novel, including London and Paris, Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay, Miss Pross and Madame Defarge, etc.

In Living to Tell the Tale, Gabriel Marquez starts with "My mother asked me to go with her to sell the house." and then the journey to sell the house evolved the story. The first paragraphy of the book is amazing, a friend said to me, "this is what makes a writer!" Yes, it's a beautiful paragraph, I am willing to be Marquez's typist for one time. Here you go:

"My mother asked me to go with her to sell the house. She had come that morning from the distant town where the family lived, and she had no idea how to find me. She asked around among acquaintances and was told to look for me at the Libreria Mundo, or in the nearby cafe, where i went twice a day to talk with my writer friends. The one who told her this warned her: "Be careful, because they're all out of their minds." She arrived at twelve sharp. With her light step she made her way among the tables of books on display, stopped in front of me, looking into my eyes with the mischievous smile of her better days, and before I could react she said: 'I am your mother.'"

How did I start my book? My first sentence is: