Friday, February 25, 2011

How to Write a Sentence by Stanley Fish

I'm reading the book "How to Write a Sentence" by New York Times columnist and professor Stanley Fish. The subtitle is "And How to Read One."

Fish's book demands more than reading; it requires study and contemplation. In his book, Fish analyzes sentences by breaking them down into their basic elements and gives examples of those memorable ones--those that draw readers in, hinting at plot and character, and making them want more.

"Call me Ishmael" from Moby-Dick is a sentence Fish cites, and one that tops several memorable first sentence lists.

Speaking of which: Did you know there are several websites devoted to sentences? Fish mentions several in his book. I found a couple on my own. Here's the American Book Review site with the Best First 100 Lines from Novels. And another one with the best last sentences.

One of my favorite first lines is from a children's book -- Kate DiCamillo's "Because of Winn-Dixie." The opening line introduces the character, conflict, setting, and voice. "My name is India Opal Buloni, and last summer my daddy, the preacher, sent me to the store for a box of macaroni-and-cheese, some white rice, and two tomatoes and I came back with a dog."

Another is from the O. Henry's short story, "The Gift of the Magi," which begins, "One dollar and eighty-seven cents."

My hope is that by reading and analyzing memorable sentences I can make my own sentences more appealing.

How about you? Do you have any favorite opening (or ending) sentences?


  1. Hi Donna! Great post! Thanks for all the info. The opening sentence that always comes to my mind is this one from Little Women: "Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents," grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

  2. I always find it interesting how sometimes a first line is great on its own at that first reading but it's when you go back after finishing the book that the first line takes on even deeper meaning and becomes more powerful. I love when that happens. :)

  3. Well, I don't have any favorites that I can think of. But I just picked up a copy of 'Holes' and its first line is pretty good.. . There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. It kind of makes you want to keep reading to find out why. They say you really need to have a good first line or first paragraph to hook the reader.

  4. Isak Dinesen's first line of her memoir Out of Africa:"I had a farm in Africa."

  5. Great idea for a blog post! In fact, I've been having way too much fun thumbing through books! But I decided one of my most memorable is from Tillie Olsen's short story, "I Stand Here Ironing": "I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron."

  6. I love the long--never seems to end--first sentence of Dickens' "Tale of Two Cities." A first line that made me buy the book (after which I fell in love with it) is from Barbara Robinette Moss' memoir "Change Me into Zeus's Daughter:"

    Mother spooned the poisoned corn and beans into her mouth, ravenously, eyes closed, hands shaking.

  7. I agree with Madeline; the mark of a great first line is when the first line takes on more meaning once the book is finished.

  8. My favorite first line is from S.E. Hinton's "The Outsiders": "When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home."

    As it happens, the book ends with exactly the same sentence. I first read the book when I was in the 7th grade (yikes!) and re-read it many times over the years. It is classic YA novel and recommended reading at many middle and high schools.

    Great post, Donna, as always!

  9. "Beware thoughts that come in the night. They aren't turned properly; they come in askew, free of sense and restriction, deriving from the most remote of sources." Forgive me, Donna, for including more than just the first line of Blue Highways--one of my favorite books. The first two lines go together so well, I had to quote them both.

  10. Thanks for sharing this book. The title doesn't suggest something as interesting as what you've written about it. And I do agree with you about the first sentence of Kate DiCamillo's book--how much we can learn about writing just from studying that first sentence.

  11. Hi Becky,
    That's a good one.

    Hi Madeline,
    I agree.

    Hi Janet,
    HOLES is a great book--and movie!

    Hi Claudia,
    I like that one, simple yet provocative.

    Hi Tammy,
    What a vivid image and a compelling first line!

    Hi Sioux,
    Dickens knew how to do it.

    Hi Sally,
    I agree.

    Hi Lisa,
    I've never read THE OUTSIDERS, but I should.

    Hi Dianna,
    Another great beginning.

    Hi Clara,
    You are so kind. I've learned so much about the craft of writing by reading children's authors, including YA and middle-grade.


  12. The book sounds like a perfect reminder to help us slow down and really pay attention to what's been written. Thanks for the recommendation!


  13. Hi Pat,
    You're welcome, and good luck with your promotion.


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