Ghosts . . . And the Power of a Good Sentence

“The ghosts are still here.”

Well I’m hooked. What a fun first sentence from Dance of Thieves by Mary E. Pearson! I’m especially glad because this is a book that I am otherwise not drawn to. I’ll be honest: I just don’t care for the fantasy genre. But I’m reading it because I’m a high school English teacher, and I know I need to be familiar with all genres. There’s nothing better than being able to know my students and figure out a book they’d like.

And more than once, I’ve had students come to me first thing in the morning to tell me that they read the book (woo hoo!) and loved it (what??). It is the best.

Anyway, thank you, Pearson, for writing a great first sentence. The eerie simplicity of the sentence surely foreshadows the complexity that is to come. We’ll see! I will read the entire book, I promise.

So why a blog post about first sentences? Because they are fascinating! Think of some of your favorite books, and go look up the first sentence. You’ll be surprised at how much goes into that sentence, and sometimes you realize how much only after you finish the book. Do something for me right now:

Open up whatever book you’re reading right now, and write the first sentence in the comments below.

I’ll also share the first sentence from the other book I’m currently reading: How Not To Die, by Michael Greger (a must-read, by the way). Here’s his first sentence:

Imagine if terrorists created a bioagent that spread mercilessly, claiming the lives of nearly four hundred thousand Americans every year.

Pretty good, right? Especially for a book that basically goes through research studies that have been done on diet and disseminates them. Maybe not the kind of writing style you’d choose for a summer read. (Side-note: Yes, this book dumps a ton of information on you, but I have been quite impressed with the writing style. I genuinely enjoy reading it.) And if you’re wondering, Greger uses the first sentence as a lead to his chapter on coronary heart disease and how many lives it takes each year (you guessed it: nearly four hundred thousand).

There’s so much riding on that first sentence.

I can imagine authors wanting to give up before they’ve even begun.

And that’s how I felt about starting a blog. I hemmed and hawed and fretted . . . and worried way too much about what other people thought. It was only when I decided to write for myself that my fingers relaxed enough to tap keys and form sentences. And if other people read it? Bonus! (Two of my friends scoffed when I told them I had started a blog: “Ten years too late!” . . . “It’s only podcasts now.”)

But what I’m discovering is that if I write about something deeply important to me, more than likely someone out there will resonate. And even if it’s just one connection, it’s something. That’s special.

And you know what else? The written word is a beautiful thing. I would be a hypocrite to believe that and not be writing on a regular basis. In fact, one reason I started a blog is I felt convicted to. I’m in the classroom every day telling my students all about the beauty and importance of writing when I’m not disciplined enough to be doing it? (Note: For me, journal writing wasn’t enough. I needed something to be published. And whether or not I have a readership, I need to know that others might read what I write.)

But back to first sentences. Hey, are you a teacher? Do you have kids? Do you talk to other humans? Talk about first sentences. What clues do they contain? What words? What’s the verb? What kind of sentence is it? Is there imagery there? Does it belie what’s to come? (Thinking of Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” here: “The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.” OK, Jackson, we see you. Spoiler: MURDER AHEAD.) What’s the vibe (in teacher terms, “mood”) of the sentence? Is it narration? A character speaking? Ah, I love teaching. (Can you tell?) I love how Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea begins with a compound sentence sans comma (gasp!). Take a look:

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.

SO MUCH TO TALK ABOUT HERE! So much, in fact, that perhaps I will use this first sentence as an essay prompt for my 9th-grade students at the beginning of the year (they read Old Man — and a YA novel — for summer reading). First of all, the sentence is a mouthful, stuffed with prepositions, an adjective clause, and two independent clauses — all with no pause (no comma) to take a breath. Taking that into consideration when looking at the mostly-negative diction (“old,” “alone,” “without”), we can feel the immensity of something here. Futility? Despair? Loneliness? (Spoiler: it’s none of those.) And now I’m excited all over again to reread it this summer.

But maybe what I most appreciate about first sentences is the application to life. Starting my blog was one of my first sentences, but there have been many in my life. Deciding on my master’s degree. Working in retail to pay the bills. Teaching that first day. Deciding to have children. Having first child. Some sentences have been better than others, but even the terrible ones are beautiful because we learn from them.

Life is pretty cool like that.

And as we continue living (and getting better at it), we learn how to get better at our first sentences. I like thinking about what it is I love about actual first sentences of books and applying those same qualities to my first sentences of life. So in that way, I like to go forward in new directions in life feeling:

  • Confident
  • Strong
  • Well-equipped
  • Efficient
  • Vulnerable

So — whether you’re a reader or not — take a moment and thank those first sentences of books for the life lessons they provide. They teach us to be confident, strong, well-equipped, efficient . . . and vulnerable.

They teach us that sometimes simplicity is best.

That sometimes you don’t realize the significance until the end of the book.

6 thoughts on “Ghosts . . . And the Power of a Good Sentence

  1. Krysta July 2, 2019 / 12:58 am

    “I used to be someone.”
    The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E Pearson


  2. Sarah July 3, 2019 / 2:22 am

    “In the late nineteen-sixties, I was working in rented space on Nassau Street up a flight of stairs and over Nathan Kasrel, Optometrist.”
    Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process by John McPhee

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jen Knapp July 8, 2019 / 5:16 pm

    “What about a teakettle?” -Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer


  4. Jen Knapp July 20, 2019 / 10:13 pm

    “My suffering left me sad and gloomy.” Life of Pi


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s