On these cold January nights, on the fifteen-minute walk from the train station to my house after work, I like to let my mind wander, shedding the stresses of the day. On good days I might think about a party I’d been to or a trip I’m planning to take; on bad days I might wonder about the economy or the mountain of laundry bursting out of my hamper. And then there are the days—good days, bad days, it doesn’t matter which—when I think about the opening sentences of my favorite novels.
Some nights I like to ponder the opening line of Jane Austen’s “Emma,” in which Austen introduces her heroine from a distance: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence, and had managed to live twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” I’ve always loved that word “seemed.” Emma Woodhouse doesn’t unite the best blessings of existence, she only seems to unite the best blessings of existence; and the distance Austen immediately sets up between us and Emma helps us see Emma’s faults more clearly as her story unfolds.
If I’m waiting for the light to change and have extra time to kill, I might compare the opening of “Emma” with the opening of Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre”: “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” Here I feel I’ve been dropped into the story, so close to the narrative I can only guess who’s speaking. The “that day” at the end of Brontë’s sentence, like the “seemed” in Austen’s sentence, is one of those clues I began to understand only after repeating it aloud to myself. Brontë could have written “there was no possibility of taking a walk” without harming the sentence’s grammar, but the “that day” lets me know the action Jane Eyre is describing has long past, on the exact day—almost the exact minute—her story begins. I liked “that day” so much that I wound up borrowing (okay, stealing) the phrase for the opening sentence of my own novel.
But my favorite first sentence to mull over on my walk from work, a first sentence that seems to beg to be mulled over (and over and over), comes from Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” Nine words, fourteen syllables—no sentence could be simpler in syntax and yet so complex in meaning.
As I walk past bus stops and Korean restaurants and the pink-painted candy store on my way home, I like to break apart Woolf’s sentence in my mind—it’s not hard, after all, since it’s only the nine words—and think of the ways Woolf could have written that sentence, but didn’t. (I could go on about the choice of character name for Mrs. Dalloway, patrician and poetic with its liquid double-“l” in the middle, but I’ll leave the fun of naming character names for another blog.)
For starters, Woolf could have introduced us to her main character in any number of ways:
“Clarissa Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”
“Clarissa said she would buy the flowers herself.”
“She said she would buy the flowers herself.”
Or Woolf could have changed the sentence from indirect to direct dialogue:
“Mrs. Dalloway said, ‘I’ll buy the flowers myself.’”
Woolf could even have inverted the subject and the object:
“‘I’ll buy the flowers myself,’ Mrs. Dalloway said.”
Or she could have been more specific about the flowers:
“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the roses herself.”
Or, finally, Woolf could have omitted the sentence’s last word:
“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers.”
But for me, taking out the “herself” is the worst thing I can do to that opener. I love how “herself” draws the stress away from “buy the flowers” and deepens a story that has scarcely begun. Already, I’m asking myself: who is this Mrs. Dalloway, and if she doesn’t buy the flowers herself, who would buy them? Why do the flowers have to be bought in the first place? Even the “the” in front of “flowers” takes on a special meaning: they aren’t just any flowers, they are “the” flowers, flowers, apparently, that somebody has to buy. I know I’m in the hands of a great writer when even the pronouns and the definite articles draw me in.
Of course, “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself” is etched so indelibly into our common literary psyche that it’s hard to imagine life without it.
Not far from me is a bookstore called Mrs. Dalloway’s, with the first sentence stenciled into the wall above the bookshelves; I can’t imagine any of my rewrites achieving such iconic fame. For to change the opening sentence of Mrs. Dalloway by even a single word, I think, would have given us a different novel than the one Virginia Woolf gave us.
So if you’re staring in front of a cold, blank computer screen, having trouble coming up with that right first sentence, don’t worry—it probably won’t come to you until after your gazillionth draft, after your characters have sunk into your skin. That’s how I comfort myself, anyway, when I struggle with my own fiction on these dark January nights.
Have a favorite first sentence you like to chew over? Share it here or email me about it at firstname.lastname@example.org.
♦ ♦ ♦
Chris Delyani published his first novel, “The Love Thing,” in July 2009, and is feverishly working on a second. He lives in Oakland, California, with his husband Dan and his cat McGee. You can visit his website at http://www.chrisdelyani.com.
SYNOPSIS for The Love Thing:
Twenty-two-year old Greg DeAngelis moves to San Francisco from New York to escape his overbearing father, who’s pressuring him to go to law school, and his ex-boyfriend Matthew, who dumps him for an older, richer man. To make desperately needed money Greg temps at a law firm, where he blunders into the role of the firm’s official birthday cake maker, despite his utter lack of culinary skill. A lot of guys vie for the hero’s attention as he navigates the rough waters of office politics and single life in San Francisco, but only one of them can give him “the love thing.” Can he figure out which one, before it’s too late? This comic novel is about the importance of love and friendship, and of knowing who your true friends really are.
TRAILER for The Love Thing:
♦ ♦ ♦
Thanks, Chris, for some great food for thought and for illuminating the importance of first sentences.