Apr 16, 2010

It's the second sentence, stupid

At some point in the evening on my birthday a couple weeks ago, I was curled up on a real live divan in the chicest apartment I am aware of in all of Montreal, talking to some of my favorite people about writing. Because that's how I roll.

I'd had a brainstorm on the metro for a possible first line of a novel. I'd been quite pleased with it, but then I realized it was, of course, totally cliché. To the point where it had several points of intersection with the first line of Twilight. So I'd fiddled with it to remove the similarities, but now I wasn't so sure I liked it.

At this point in my gripping narrative, the owner of the apartment (who is certainly a better writer than I'll ever be) said "Really, though, it's the second sentence that makes it." Or something to that effect.

And I think she was totally right. It's almost always the second sentence that really hooks me. The first sentence will get me interested, and if it's good or intriguing it's like standing on the edge of a cliff. I feel excited, hopeful...full of anticipation to see if the author can follow up. And then I read the second sentence, and if it's blah I feel kind of let down. But if it's good, I smile and sigh happily and settle in. It doesn't have to be brilliant, but the two sentences have to really work together.

A sampling from the most recent books I've been reading -

"The temperature hit ninety degrees the day she arrived. New York was steaming--an angry concrete animal caught unawares in an unseasonable hot spell."
--The Valley of the Dolls, Jacqueline Susann

"I first met Perkus Tooth in an office. Not an office where he worked, though I was confused about this at the time."
--Chronic City, Jonathan Letham

"My company was charming. Opposite me by the massive Renaissance fireplace sat Venus; she was not a casual woman of the half-world, who under this pseudonym wages war against the opposite sex, like Mademoiselle Cleopatra, but the real, true goddess of love."
--Venus in Furs, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch

"Elspeth died while Robert was standing in front of a vending machine watching tea shoot into a small plastic cup. Later he would remember walking down the hospital corridor with the cup of horrible tea in his hand, alone under the fluorescent lights, retracing his steps to the room where Elspeth lay surrounded by machines."
--Her Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffenegger

"'So you're all set for money, then?' the boy named Crow asks in his typical sluggish voice. The kind of voice like when you've just woken up and your mouth still feels heavy and dull."
--Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami

With the possible exception of Her Fearful Symmetry, all of these sucked me in on the second sentence, not the first. And even in HFS, it's the second sentence that seals the deal. The first sentence of each of these was interesting enough to keep me reading. It's a teaser. But so many people try to cram their hook into the first sentence like it's a hard-and-fast rule. But there you have it - 5 out of 6 of the last books that hooked me had the hook in the second sentence. The exception?

"At that very moment, in the very sort of Park Avenue co-op apartment that so obsessed the Mayor...twelve-foot ceilings...two wings, one for the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who own the place and one for the help...Sherman McCoy was kneeling in his front hall trying to put a leash on a dachshund."
--The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe

So, how about it? Is this important variation getting lost in the shuffle with the common fixation on "hooking with the first sentence"?

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