A friend recently posed the question, based on this article about the first sentence in A Chronicle for Leibowitz:

“What’s in _your_ first sentence?”

My smart ass response was “90 days or 90 dollars!” Then I started imagining first sentences, with one starting a riff (on the potential adventures of Nan):

Terrence O’Keefe’s introspective moments were typically inspired by a base reaction: this November morning, his muse was the cold air worrying at his crotch as he waited for the walk sign.

and

Nan tucked her parents into their drawer, kissed their noses, and turned off the light.

Funny how just one or two words changes can shift the meaning of the sentence; here, from creepy cute to bizarre to psychopathically creepy cute:

Nan folded her parents into their drawer, kissed their noses, and turned off the light.

or

Nan backed her parents into their corner, kissed their noses, and turned off the light.

Do we go on to learn, in the case of tucked or folded, that Nan is actually tucking a photograph into a drawer, that her parents are no longer with her–dead or missing? Is it a horror story, a missing parents mystery, a tale of freeze-dry cryo suspension? Or a loving suburban monster? It’s a nifty sentence, but if I were to go on with it, I’d better alert the reader fairly quickly unless I wanted to dance around the plot–then I’d better be sure I’m doing enough to keep them interested instead of annoyed.

If this woman was Nan’s next door neighbor, the story might start with:

Every afternoon, Nan turned her sprinkler on high to paint a rainbow above the fence, just to hear the neighbor lady scream.

(I need to work on that sentence. But I love the idea.) 

There are some authors, Graham Greene was one, who can set the tone and let you know what kind of story you were in for, in just a few short words. Other writers (in control of their prose) may intentionally use that first sentence to mystify; perhaps to set a mood or make you feel what the character’s feeling.

The first sentence in Walter J Miller’s A Chronicle for Leibowitz is: 

“Brother Francis Gerard of Utah might never have discovered the blessed documents, had it not been for the pilgrim with girded loins who appeared during that young novice’s Lenten fast in the desert.”

Miller might have been carefully satirical in his opening sentence and also struggling with the text, eventually deciciding to just get on with what turns into a great post-apocalyptic story. Only he would have known, and it probably doesn’t matter. That first sentence is done in the comical, humble, exploratory voice that matches the story and characters. It’s not perfect, but it’s good enough and doesn’t really distract us. Or maybe it is perfect for the right reader.

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