Thursday, May 11, 2017

A Paragraph’s All-Important First Sentence

I’ve read a few books lately that are, quite frankly, trite and boring. Nevertheless, I forced my way through them, a tad curious how they might end. Because piles of descriptive text that followed the first sentence of each paragraph added nothing to the story, I found myself reading ONLY the first sentence of each paragraph, allowing me to zip through the book with relative ease – and not miss a thing. Then I wondered, are my books like that as well?

I began reading The Substitute with that question in mind, and immediately realized two things: (1) my first sentences tend to be long and (2) the first sentence of most paragraphs invite the reader to read the second sentence. In fact, much of The Substitute is lost if only the first sentence is read. A few examples are provided below:

(The Devil speaking about Miss Havana) “I tolerate Miss Havana because of her delectable exterior and ironic view of eternal judgement, but I sense danger in her, an evil nature that forces me to continuously review the five years prior to her arrival here.”

The sentence is intended to make the reader want to know what intrigued the Devil to evaluate Miss Havana differently than others in his grasp. It’s clear the Devil lusts after her external appearance, but what did Miss Havana do in the prior five years to make the Devil sense danger in her? Also, what is her ironic view of eternal judgment? In the next paragraph, the Devil begins to explain.

“She came to me from the great state of Illinois, where she frequently taught at the request of the Redmond School Board, but not a single student at Redmond High had the slightest idea why she insisted on being addressed as ‘Miss Havana’.”

No description follows that first sentence, but I believe the reader will want to know why her name is “Miss Havana”.  The second sentence of that paragraph reads, “She didn’t claim Spanish or Cuban descent, but she did insist on that name, so that’s what they called her, at least to her face.”

The second sentence is intended to expand on the first and leave the reader with two questions: why is she called Miss Havana and what did they call her when she wasn’t in their presence? Both questions are answered later in the book.

In the first sentence of a subsequent paragraph, the Devil continues, “Despite her outward beauty, however, Miss Havana exemplified a sad fact of life that the appearance of a thing can be vastly different from the reality of a thing.”

Again, the sentence begs the question, what makes the beautiful Miss Havana so different than her appearance would suggest. Again, the question is answered as the reader continues.

The Devil begins to get at specifics a few paragraphs further into the novel. “Despite her delectable exterior and meticulous presentation style, however, a few students questioned the wisdom of having Miss Havana as a substitute teacher.” The statement should elicit a question – why? The second sentence explains, “She was eye-candy in the most delicious sense of the phrase, but she was also a strict disciplinarian and rigid educator who conducted class with the enthusiasm for order and obedience of Joseph Stalin.”

A few hilarious examples follow as the novel begins to reveal how utterly corrupt and horrid Miss Havana actually is, and that her antics are what led her to the Devil’s doorstep.
I could go on with many examples, but I believe you get the picture. As an author, you must nudge your reader from the first sentence of a paragraph to the next, and so on. Each first sentence should set the stage for the action that will happen following it. While it is also true the gist of most novels can be obtained by reading only the first sentence of each paragraph, it should be the goal of every author to make the reader WANT to read every sentence beyond the first.

Thanks for reading,

James L. Hatch


Tina Donahue said...

Great post, James. I tend to use very short sentences at the beginning of my books. I also like to use dialogue. What it comes down to, IMO, is a matter of style. The way I like to start books is what I like to see in other authors' works.

James L. Hatch said...

Interesting indeed. I suspect the length doesn't matter much as long as each sentence leads to the next one. I certainly don't want readers just reading the first sentence of each paragraph in my books. I believe the onus is on me ... not them.

Thanks for the comment.