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What’s in a sentence?

There have been some classic first sentences in literature:

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” I studied Pride and Prejudice at school: all my classmates were in love with Mr Darcy (it was a Catholic girls’ school). I didn’t understand (this was before Colin Firth and the jumping in muddy puddles scene – although I don’t understand that one either). I did however memorise the first sentence of the book and the only thing I’ve forgotten is where to put the commas.

1984 by George Orwell has an opening sentence that is memorable too: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” You immediately know that something’s up.

I also memorised (triumphantly) the opening sentence of Moby Dick – “Call me Ishmael”. Yes I know it’s the second shortest sentence ever, but Herman Melville’s clever introducing his narrator’s character in just three words: vague, detached, orphan-like.

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness,” written by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (Paul Clifford) is widely regarded as the worst first sentence ever written*. The library doesn’t have a copy.

First sentences are all about first impressions and are therefore important. So are first sentences up to scratch in popular books at the moment? Let’s see.

book coverGossip Girl (number one): “Ever wondered what the lives of the chosen ones are really like?” I guess that just about covers it, so, not too bad.

Twilight: “My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down.” (Yes I know, I’ll get back to you about the Preface when I can get my hands on a copy of the book!) This highlights one of the things I don’t like about Stephenie Meyer’s writing style: she’s taking a while to get to the point (which is the difference between Phoenix (sunny) and the Olympic Peninsula (not)). The book(s) could have been shorter if she took less time to get to the point. What do you think?

Eldest: “The songs of the dead are the lamentations of the living.” Hm. He’s a serious-minded chap, is Christopher Paolini (and Eragon, I guess).

Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging: “Dad had Uncle Eddie around so naturally they had to come and see what I was up to.” The word “naturally” is what makes this sentence (and possibly also “had to”). This suggests sarcasm (or irony, if you’re being kind) and that you’re a mate she’s confiding in.

book coverHow I Live Now: “My name is Elizabeth but no one’s ever called me that.” Quite punchy, that one.

Northern Lights: “Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.” ‘Lyra and her daemon are up to no good’, you think, and, ‘what’s a daemon then?’

Finally: “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) I’m very glad that the first Harry Potter sentence ever introduces the wonderful Dursleys! (And rather well.)

Nothing’s really knocking me over though. Is the first sentence a lost art? I’m going to go on a hunt for excellent first sentences. I’ll get back to you.

* So bad, in fact, that there’s a Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. You get some money if you win even (plus a lot of kudos).


Zinefest ’08


What’s in a sentence? Part Two


  1. Melissa

    Hey! About Stephenie Meyer’s writing style – yeah she does take awhile to get to the point, but if she left all of that stuff out, true, the books would be alot shorter, however I believe that we wouldn’t get as good of an understanding of what is going on around Bella and inside her head, therefore, having no clue of what is going on half the time!

    But then possibly I might just not like anyone criticising her awesome books 🙂 Can’t wait til the movie!

  2. Grimm

    Another one: I Capture the Castle… “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”

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