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First and last sentences

April 22, 2014

First sentences, according to Stanley Fish, are “promissory notes.” They lean forward, pulling readers into the story with hints about plot and character. “Many years later, in front of the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía would remhow to write a sentenceember that distant afternoon his father took him to see ice.” Some first sentences use mood, metaphor or imagery to do the job of setting things up. “Except for the Malabar Caves—and they are twenty miles off—the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary.” Others assert a problem or issue a challenge: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Last sentences have the advantage of all that has gone before. They don’t have to “start the engine; all they have to do is shut it down.” Last sentences may do any number of things:
• Sum up
• Refuse to sum up
• Change the subject
• Leave you satisfied
• Leave you wanting more
• Put everything in perspective
• Explode perspectives.

Dickens had two endings to Great Expectations. The original was:
“I was very glad afterwards to have had the interview; for in her face, and in her voice, and in her touch, she gave me the assurance that suffering had been stronger than Miss Havisham’s teaching, and had given her a heart to understand what my heart used to be.”

And the published version:
“I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light, they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her.”

There are many more examples of first, last and marvelously effective sentences in Stanley Fish’s enthusiastic book, How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Alison Colvin permalink
    April 22, 2014 6:02 pm

    This is great. Perhaps last sentences should also carry a universal truth.

  2. April 22, 2014 6:30 pm

    “It is a far, far better thing that I do….” like that?

  3. Alison Colvin permalink
    April 23, 2014 8:34 am

    Perhaps as in Middlemarch:

    “But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

  4. Frank Gavin permalink
    April 30, 2014 11:42 am

    I’ve been trying to think of a great first sentence that begins an otherwise mediocre or forgettable novel or story and so far haven’t been able to come up with one. (I’m sure they exist.) This got me to thinking that the greatness or at least the memorability of many first sentences might be something that is retrospectively conferred or recognized by readers once they are well into the work or after they’ve read the whole of it.

  5. Valerie McDonald permalink
    May 2, 2014 1:08 pm

    I can’t think of any either. There may be examples of sentences that promise a lot in books that don’t deliver, but I generally stop reading them and forget about the great first sentence. Stanley Fish notes that some of the most famous last sentences may not actually deserve their fame, but because everything that goes before is so well-loved, we forgive them (Tale of Two Cities especially). I find it very useful to read both the first and last sentences of a book to help me decide if it’s worth reading.

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