Monday, November 24, 2014

First Sentences in (Fan)Fiction

Well, I didn't get much writing done, but I piddled around with the start of a story for a while.  I have more trouble with beginnings than with middles and endings, generally, when I write--so I thought I'd look at how some other authors have started their stories.

Specifically, I thought that I'd look at that much-ballyhooed First Sentence.  A good first sentence can instantly hook a reader, while a bad one can just as easily drive one away.  Of course, the hundreds, thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of sentences which come after it matter, too.  But analyzing the forty-seventh sentence of stories doesn't have the same ring, does it?

Below, I've posted the first sentence of the dozen Fandom Classics I've most recently reviewed, my star rating for the story overall, and my thoughts on the first sentence, specifically.  Let's see if anything interesting emerges.

(links are to my reviews throughout)

Life on the Frontier, 2 stars

The first sentence: "So, where are we moving to again?" Derpy-Doo asked Carrot Top, eagerly looking out the window of the train, watching the scenery pass.

Thoughts:  It's a run-on, which doesn't exactly make a good impression.  I'll give it credit for providing an immediate hook (where are they moving to, and even if I read the story description and already knew the answer, why are they moving there?), but the question is transparently asked for the sake of the reader, which puts a sour taste in my mouth right away.  I'm going to give this sentence a 1/5 overall, on my brand-new "how effective is this sentence in both preparing me for the story I'm about to read, and encouraging me to continue reading" scale.

The Assumption of Applejack -or- Appletheosis, 2 stars

The first sentence: AJ cantered up one of the many hills overlooking the vast orchards of Sweet Apple Acres.

Thoughts:  It's a pretty boring first sentence, but that doesn't mean it's a bad one.  It immediately sets our scene, focuses us on our primary character, and doesn't stumble into any distracting cliches along the way.  I'll give this a workmanlike 3/5, for doing everything it sets out to do, but nothing more.  It's what I'd call a "perfectly good" first sentence--not the kind I'd remember or quote, but fine for that.

Melt, 2 stars

The first sentence:  Celestia carried herself with elegance and grace.

Thoughts:  As with Appletheosis, the first sentence here is basically trying to stay out of the reader's way, rather than actively entice.  This is less impressive, though, because while it does set us up with our focus character, it doesn't really tell us anything else.  Nothing about the setting, nothing about her or her mood that doesn't fall into the "things a ponyfic reader would assume unless told otherwise" category, nothing.  Still a 2/5 for not doing anything to scare me off, but you could literally delete this sentence (and replace "she" with "Celestia" in the next one, I guess), and lose nothing.

The Last Human, 3 stars

The first sentence:  The human lived in the iron city, and he lived all alone.

Thoughts:  This is the first really great sentence we've seen.  It's evocative, it raises questions that require further reading (and not just to the end of the paragraph) to answer, it sets the scene, and it clearly sets the tone for the story going forward.  This is a 5/5, and a great example of how to use that first sentence to draw in the reader and establish your fic in few words.

In Her Majesty's Royal Service, 2 stars

The first sentence:  At midday, an open air market of Canterlot bustled with activity as ponies meandered between vendor carts laden with silks and jewelry, and loitered in front of irritated shopkeepers’ entranceways.

Thoughts:  The odd phrasing doesn't necessarily inspire a lot of confidence, and doesn't really tell the reader much, either.  It does establish setting, but doesn't really tell us anything beyond "Canterlot marketplace" that we wouldn't have assumed from just those two words.  1/5.

Dash's New Mom, 1 star

The first sentence:  Her life just couldn’t get any better.

Thoughts:  This is hook, pure and simple.  And it does its job, creating a need for resolution both immediate ("her"?) and longer (what's going to happen to change the trajectory of her day?).  As with Appletheosis, this one gets 3/5 for being effective for what it is, but not noteworthy otherwise.

Twilight Sparkle Earns the Feature-Box, 1 star

The first sentence:  In the serene warm darkness of the Canternet, Twilight Sparkle lay, observing her Audience.

Thoughts:  This sentence establishes setting, characters, and enticing the reader to continue.  If I was to pick at it, I'd say it doesn't really set the mood or tone, but it's still definitely a solid 4/5.

Roll for Initiative, 3 stars

The first sentence:  “You’re going to die if you keep going,” said the ghost of Star Swirl the Bearded.

Thoughts:  The first sentence thrusts us right into the thick of things, giving us a nice hook--skipping straight to "death" will do that.  As with Feature Box, tone is the missing piece of the puzzle (depending on how the presumed reveal is dealt with, this could be anything from comedy to high drama), but this is another easy 4/5.

Incidentally, I should probably pause as I write this to point out that I'm evaluating the first sentences as first sentences, not as pieces of a larger whole (say, the story in question).  I don't say that every first sentence needs to establish the tone of the story, or provide an immediate hook, or whatever... but I do think that, in the context of looking for "great first sentences," those are legitimate criteria (though not the only ones; see "Call me Ishmael").

Rainbooms and Royalty, 1 star

The first sentence:  VICTORY! Was there ever a sweeter word?

Thoughts:  At the risk of being to interpretive with the definition of "first sentence," I think it's reasonable to classify the first word as an interjection, and judge what are technically the first two sentences as one.  That being the case, this is another case of "sets a hook, sets it well, and that's about it," which earns it a respectable 3/5.

No Regrets, 4 stars

The first sentence:  The great Celestia, most beloved of ponykind, crouches, head bowed.

Thoughts:  Comparing this to the first sentence of Melt is instructive.  While Melt tells us that Celestia is "elegant and grace[ful]," which the reader would presumably assume based on pre-existing characterization if given nothing more than the name, No Regrets' first line contradicts our expectations, making itself both relevant and necessary in the process.  Right away, there's a hook, open questions, and a clear focus.  The one thing holding me back is that it's not a particularly elegantly constructed sentence--all those commas, while grammatically correct, aren't exactly aesthetically pleasing, and in an explicit evaluation of "the first sentence," that matters.  I'm going to let that knock me down to a 4/5.

Forever Faithful, 1 star

The first sentence:  In all her years as the reigning princess of Equestria, Princess Celestia had never attended an event that was this sad.

Thoughts:  This is the kind of sentence that doesn't do anything explicitly wrong, but sets off plenty of warning bells.  The very first sentence already telling you the mood doesn't speak to subtlety going forward, and "sad" is an awfully generic word to use in reference to the most extreme mood ever encountered by a 1000+ year-old being.  That said, it does give us an immediate sense of the nature of the story it's telling, so I'll give it a 2/5.

Inner Demons, 1 star

The first sentence:  "Twilight, get up!" Spike called out from downstairs.

Thoughts:  The extraneous "out" isn't a great sign, but it's not like the sentence doesn't make sense with it there; it's just, well, extraneous.  Other than that, this sentence pretty much does what it's trying to: it immediately sets the scene, giving us a(n implied) time and place while starting us off with a bit of dialogue.  I'm going to go with a 3/5 on balance.

So, what can we conclude?  Probably nothing, but it's worth noting that there seems to be a weak correlation between great first sentences and great stories (at least, going by my definitions of both).  That makes sense--a single great sentence can rarely make or break a story by itself, but it's not a bad indicator of what's in store.


  1. "And it does its job..."

    No need for that apostrophe, Chris

    Would it be improper to substitute em dashes in place of the commas surrounding "most beloved of ponykind"?

    1. I don't know that it would be wrong, per se, but I think it would be a poor choice. "Most beloved of ponykind" isn't really an aside; it's addition, an add-on to her name.

  2. I, for one, wouldn't mind if you did this thing more often. It may not have given me something new to read, but this was really interesting and informative regardless.

    1. I agree! It would also be interesting to see how final sentences compare. (With a spoiler warning in the title perhaps.)

    2. Glad you guys liked it! I enjoyed doing this, and I may well come back and do it again.

      I'd thought about endings, too, but then you have the whole spoiler problem. I could mark it off, but then I'm making a blog post full of, well, spoilers. It would still be fun, though.

  3. I'm quite the opposite of you, Chris. I have a relatively easy time with opening sentences. At least with ones that satisfy me—whether others find them effective is another matter.

    The only one I'd disagree with you on here—and maybe it's not actually a disagreement, given that you didn't actually say you liked this part—is "Dash's New Mom." It's a peeve of mine to have a character's first mention be via pronoun, which work best via antecedent, with the exceptions of another identifier popping up in the same sentence or the use of "I" for a first-person narrator. You noted how it created tension for the reader to want to figure out who it is, but something generic like "the mare" accomplishes the same thing while retaining functionality.

    I prefer opening with a relatively short sentence that's evocative and introduces some enticing detail whose meaning gets pushed off a little bit, so that the reader has to go on a little bit to get more context. Similarly, I also like opening with an odd piece of dialogue whose full meaning isn't self-contained, so the reader has to go a little further to see why something like that would be said, though I know such an opening annoys some people. What does bother me about some implementations of that is when the author keeps putting off identifying the speaker. If I leave such a quote unattributed, then I'll start the very next sentence with the speaker's name (he said, not checking to see if he's violated this rule).

    What gives me more trouble is ending a story. Sometimes I get to the end, and the story just peters out. Then I sit there and try to think of a memorable line to close things out, and it just doesn't come to me. By then, (usually) the reader knows everything, and you can't tease with some interesting detail. You have to tie everything up with a neat ribbon, crack some final joke, leave on some zinger. For me, that's twice as hard as the beginning. About three quarters of the the time, a great last line will pop into my head while I'm still conceptualizing the story or am still in the middle of writing. But in cases where I come to the end of writing without one in mind, I struggle with it.

  4. HEITSIBPMFTSIATRAEMTCR Scale just does not roll off the tongue. :(

    Interesting analysis. Now do the 47th sentences! :V

  5. Opening hooks are not my strong suit either, or so I'm told.

    Which reminds me, I really should get around to doing those revisions I said I'd do...

  6. I feel there are some exceptions. For example, a two-beat joke, with the end of the first sentence being used to create the critical timing for humour.

    IE: "Despite the label’s proclamation of ‘Every chocolate hoof-made with love!', Queen Chrysalis did not feel the usual surge of energy upon consumption of raw emotion.

    Then again, [i]chocolate[/i]."

  7. There's always the 'Wait a minute. What?' intro like I did for Diamond Tiara Buys a Little Sister:
    Diamond Tiara fumed silently as she looked through the glass window into the shopping area at the Ponyville Hospital Maternity Ward.

    Although my regular work tends to be a little blunt, as in the Traveling Tutor series:
    1) It was amazing how the proximity of death sharpened the senses.
    2) The Royal Princess sat on the windowsill of her prison cell, looking mournfully out the window at the pony guards far below.
    3) It was the most important test that Twilight Sparkle had ever taken, and while she wanted so much to know the results right now, part of her wanted nothing more than to run into the library and read Spike’s entire comic book collection instead.