The importance of first sentences in fiction is well established. It sets tone, reader expectations, and is quite literally what gets a story going. In my own writing, I have found that a good first sentence also helps create a tantalizing mix of intriguing imagery and consistency of tone. Without it, my stories often loses focus and wander off to have adventures without me. So, as someone who is endlessly stripping fairy tales for material, today I’m going to examine some first sentences from Grimms’ Complete Fairy Tales.
Long ago, when wishes came true, there lived a King whose daughters were all handsome, but the youngest was so beautiful that the sun himself, who has everything, was bemused every time he shone over her because of her beauty.
–The Frog Prince
A lot of fairy tales open with some variation on ‘long ago’ or ‘far away’ (back, far back; before the beginning of time; before the world became as it is today; far beyond the edge of the world). Timelessness and wonder are some of fairy tales’ most defining features. Being ‘long ago’ puts the story out of time, both allowing for the story to be told in the exact same way years down the line and creating that wonder. Much of this sentence is fashioned to create wonder. Neither wishes nor an anthropomorphized sun are reoccurring ideas in the story, but they provide a greater sense of the world as one that is full of magical happenings.
One summer morning a little tailor was sitting on his board near the window, and working carefully with all his might, when an old woman came down the street crying, “Good jelly to sell!”
–The Gallant Tailor
It is also common to have a defining trait of the main character and the inciting incident in the first sentence of a fairy tale. In some instances the narrator explicitly labels the characters as good or kind or wicked or lazy. Here it’s a little more subtle, but the key words of ‘careful’ and ‘might’ are still given to us very directly. Fairy tales do love presenting personalities and emotions with very clear strokes. The tailor’s decision to purchase the jelly is what causes all the rest of the story to happen, so by the end of the first sentence the plot has started.
There was a certain village where lived many rich farmers and only one poor one, whom they called the Little Farmer.
–The Little Farmer
Other than beauty, the dichotomy between rich and poor is a favorite topic of fairy tales. Here the Little Farmer is not only poor, but the only poor farmer among a group of rich farmers, which immediately puts him under the power of others. The fact that he is given the belittling title of ‘little’ furthers that point. This immediately tell us what obstacles he must overcome and gets him our sympathies.
There was once a poor countryman who used to sit in the chimney-corner all evening and poke the fire, while wife sat at her spinning-wheel.
This is very similar to the last sentence, but the conflict is more of an emotional depression rather than the cruelty of others. Although it takes another sentence to establish what exactly that conflict is, we see here how listless the characters are. The countryman is sequestered into a corner and he spends all evening doing nothing but poke at the fire. Although his wife is sitting at her spinning-wheel, she’s not given any action so we don’t even know if she is spinning. Rather it seems she’s just as depressed as he is.
There was once a cook called Gretel, who wore shoes with red heels, and when she went out in them she gave herself great airs, and thought herself very fine indeed.
This sentence sets-up the character in a similar way to the gallant tailor’s firs sentence, but I mostly want to include it because of the great detail of red heels. Fairy tales tend to shy away from overly specific details because that would take away from their timeless quality. This sentence is, in many ways, very vague. We know Gretel puts on airs, but we don’t get a scene or dialogue that would give specific examples of how she does that. But in the middle of this is the crisp detail of the red heels, marking out their importance as well as providing a grounding detail in something that otherwise lacks a good deal of setting.