Notes on Craft (3): First Sentences


In novels, first sentences are crucial.  Here are some first lines of my favorite novels:

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” 1984

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” 100 Years of Solitude

“Sitting beside the road, watching the wagon mount the hill toward her, Lena thinks, ‘I have come from Alabama: a fur piece.”  Light in August

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is alike in its own way.” I disagree with this—in fact it could easily be reversed—but it’s a great first line of Anna Karenina


I don’t know why these writers chose these first lines.  But I cannot get started writing a novel until I have a satisfactory first line. The best I could do in my novels are as follows. I didn’t know for sure at the time whether they would capture the novel, but when I look back now I can see that they pretty much did, and I describe how:

“Sitting on the train, the baby at her breast, the young woman thinks, They say there’s a machine in Changsha City that will tell you if it’s a boy or a girl.”  The novel is At the Heart of the Universe.  My just-published novel, set in China, where we adopted our daughter at 4 months; going back when she was ten, to the police station and orphanage where she was given away by her birth mother.  This sentence puts you in the birth mother’s head, as she travels to– against her will– to give up her baby– because it’s a girl, not a boy. An effect of the One-Child-Per-Family policy of China.  


“Except for her sunglasses, Berry is naked.”  The House of God, my first novel, a raunchy, wildly-funny no-holds barred “satire” of my experience in my medical internship in a hospital of that name; note that its about body, and sex.

“To be alive is to have an open mind; this is not easy to do; to be happy? happy seems flawless; this is its great flaw.”  Fine, a novel about a funny, crazy, guy in his training to be a psychiatrist—note that it places the blame directly on “mind,” the psyche, with wordplay, for fun.

“WASPs, I’d discovered in my month of being a shrink, are notoriously hard to read.”  Mount Misery, the sequel to The House of God, where the same narrator goes into training to be a psychiatrist at a large mental institution founded by people who came over on the Mayflower.  They named it “Mount Misery.” One issue was how to understand and heal people who show you almost no emotion.

“Even a shy American can be happy in Italy, and Orville Rose was about as happy as a childless man can  be.” The Spirit of the Place. I love this line—shyness, the magic of Italy, American guy named after Orville Wright, but Rose a Jewish last name, happiness denied to a childless man”—we’re off!  It’s about all of those things—especially the spirit of those things!

“Hear it, remember it, and pass it on—thus I have heard.”  The Buddha’s Wife: the Path of Awakening Together (with Janet Surrey), the novella that is the first half of the book, written in the style of the Buddha’s teaching, about a new path of awakening that Yashodara the Buddha’s wife found with other women when Siddhartha left her on the night of their only child’s birth, to go on his journey of enlightenment.

“My name’s Bill W.and I’m an alcoholic.”  Janet and my play Bill W. and Dr. Bob, about the relationship between the two men who founded Alcoholics Anonymous in Akron, Ohio in 1935. This line is said to the audience as if he is at a meeting—“breaking the fourth wall” of theater, and if there are any 12-step members in the audience they callback, as if in a meeting: “Hi Bill!


Please join us @ the book launch for At the Heart of the Universe:

Samuel Shem in conversation with Adam Pertman, Adoption Nationand with Katie Surrey-Bergman and Janet Surrey. At Soho Playhouse, 14 Vandam Street, NYC. November 14, Monday at from 7 to 8:45.  Free.




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