16 August 2011

story first sentences

As you gentle readers may or may not have guessed, all of us Electric Spec editors are also speculative fiction writers. One of the things I've been studying lately is what distinguishes a great story from a good story? Of course, sometimes it takes the lens of history to tell what's great. I hypothesize, however, that one significant factor is a good first sentence. Let's look at some historical examples:
  • In "Nine Lives" Ursula K. Le Guin begins with She was alive inside, but dead outside, her face a black and dun net of wrinkles, tumors, cracks.
  • In "Light of Other Days" Bob Shaw begins with Leaving the village behind, we followed the heady sweeps of the road up into a land of slow glass.
  • Arthur C. Clarke begins "The Star" with It is three thousand light-years to the Vatican.
  • Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore begin "Mimsy Were the Borogroves" with There's no use trying to describe either Unthahorsten or his surroundings, because for one thing, a good many million years had passed since 1942 Anno Domini, and, for an other, Unthahorsten wasn't on Earth, technically speaking.
  • In "The Life and Times of Multivac" Isaac Asimov begins with The whole world was interested.
  • In "The Singing Diamond" Robert L. Forward begins with My asteroid was singing.
  • In "The Xi Effect" Philip Latham begins with For a week the team of Stoddard and Arnold had met with nothing but trouble in their solar infra-red exploration program.

If I had to summarize my reaction to these sentences, they would probably be "What the heck is going on here?" (rated-G version)
But the point is, I'm hooked. This is something to aspire to.

However, through the lens of history, many of these stories had awesome ideas and maybe less effective emotional impacts. For example, "Nine Lives" explores the idea: what if you were a clone, used to being surrounded by versions of yourself and that ended? Who or what would you be then? Could you even survive? Le Guin doesn't put us inside the head of the most affected character, however.

I think today's readers want both a big idea and a big emotional impact. What do you think? You'll have to read our upcoming August 31 issue of ElectricSpec and see if you think we pull it off. :)


Martin Willoughby said...

There is a theory that you hook your reader with the first live. Then there is the theory that you have a whole page. Another theory is that it doesn't make any difference.

The answer? We're all different. Some people are hooked by a line, some by a paragraph and others just let the story grow on them.

Great first lines, though, are to be treasured just because they're great.

lesleylsmith said...

I agree, Martin! :)

sex scenes at starbucks, said...

Many of these lines follow the premise of the every narrowing lens of a short story: start wide and then sharpen the focus. It's a good theory on how to write short stories, but I don't think the only one...

SteventheThorn said...

If a big idea and big emotional impact is appropriate to the scale of the story, then I want both.

Either way, I definitely want to be hooked from the beginning of the story. There are so many books to read, that I need to know from the beginning that this book is worth my time.

I try to raise questions and draw my readers in from the first sentence.