Listening to Stanley Fish talk about the sentence on The Book Show got us thinking here at The Column about exemplary first sentences from Australian short stories.

Here’s what Fish had to say about the opening sentence. ‘It is a promissory note. It telegraphs everything that’s going to follow … It has an angle of lean. It leans forward… allowing the unfolding of the sentence to be, in effect, the entire work. If you write a first sentence that has in mind all the sentences that are to follow, it’s going to have a particular power.’

We asked three writers, Caroline Reid, Laurie Steed and Phill English for their choices of outstanding opening lines. And here’s what they had to say.

Caroline Reid chose her opening line from Dorothy Hewett’s short story collection, A Baker’s Dozen:

There are thirteen stories in this collection, written by Hewett over a period of forty years. The opening sentence of the last story, ‘Nullarbor Honeymoon’, goes like this:

“I am running down George Street with a northerly blowing grit in my face, one and a half hours late for my wedding.”

Obviously not the kind of wedding Kate Middleton had… This beginning is all action. What better way to create tension than have your protagonist running late, and not just five minutes late, for their own wedding? And that damn wind blowing grit in her face, her eyes and nose; you can hear her laboured breathing and see the dusty spittle. What a way to begin  married life! There’s something edgy and unconventional about it, like a nullabor honeymoon, like most of Hewett’s writing and the way she lived her life.
Written in the 90s, Hewett said that “this story was a rewriting of the 1960s when Merv Lilley and I took our unforgettable honeymoon in an old Matador truck trundling across the Nullarbor Plain.” The truck breaks down and is towed on that long, lonely road to the West, the state that Hewett grew up in and returned to again and again in her writing. Expert at writing about odd characters in a strange landscape, Dorothy Hewett had the extraordinary ability to transform a real life story into an arechetypal journey, swollen with anger and love, blood, sex, and hope.

Caroline Reid was born in Wales and grew up in Kalgoorlie-Boulder, Western Australia. Her play, Prayer to an Iron God was published by Currency Press in 2010. Her short story, ‘Cooked Bones’ appears in Bruno’s Song and other stories from the Northern Territory (NT Writers Centre 2011).

Laurie Steed chose the opening of  ‘Love’, from Josephine Rowe’s How a moth becomes a boat, Hunter Publishers, 2010.

The Sentence:

“He is teaching her how to break bottles against the side of the house.”

Why it rocks: Josephine Rowe creates emotional landscapes that ache with truth. In her story, Love, she explores a father/daughter relationship strewn with cruelty and the shards of broken bottles. In one sentence, Rowe captures both the flawed legacy being passed on and the key themes of the story. Furthermore, she freezes a moment of heartbreak so powerful that it leaves us shaken, our ears still ringing from the sound of breaking glass.

Laurie Steed is a writer and editor currently based in Western Australia. His writing has been published in The Age, Meanjin, Sleepers Almanac, and The Big Issue, among other places. He also reviews for Australian Book Review and Readings Monthly. Laurie is Communications Manager for the Small Press Network (SPUNC) and a PhD student in creative writing at the University of Western Australia.

Phill English chose the opening of ‘Decent Men’ by Linden Hyatt in volume 70 (1 – 2011) of Meanjin.

The sentence:

“On the night of 23 February 1968 the men in the bar at the Rosebery Hotel were four deep in the corner by the eight ball table watching a heavy-set man called Digger Munro bash a young boy; punching him, smashing at the boy’s thin hands held up to his face to defend himself, until the boy collapsed to the floor and curled in a hunch and was kicked in the head with a steel-capped boot and still the men were roaring and chanting ‘Kill him, kill him, kill the poofta’ as the kicking continued, to his arms, his chest, and the boy’s legs gave and arms went limp and only when his body was kicked further under the pool table and blood leaked from his mouth did anyone intercede and pull the man away.”

Why it rocks:

Long first sentences are a tricky thing to pull off; their length must be justified in some way, otherwise the reader will get bored halfway and move on. Linden Hyatt’s introduction to ‘Decent Men’ is one of my recent favourites for the way it uses its length to create a greater impact. We are barely allowed to take a breath throughout, and the beating seems to go on forever. By the end of the sentence, not only are we well and truly caught up in the act of violence, but we also have a very good sense of the tense mood of the story and the social scene that it takes place within. A really fantastic example of using the form to complement the message.

Phill English lives in Perth, Western Australia. He is a Ph.D. student and enjoys reading, writing, and thinking critically and creatively. His writing appears in Verandah, Voiceworks, Ricochet. Phill blogs at Tooth Soup.

Over to you

Here at The Column, we are wondering what opening sentence has caught your eye lately. Does it have this angle of lean that Fish speaks of or some other quality? We’d love to hear from you. Doesn’t have to be a lengthy response. Just:

1. Quote the sentence, the story and Australian author it came from.

2. In a few sentences, why it stands out for you.

You can post your reply in the comments box below, or email to

Also we are planning a blogpost soon on endings, so if you have a favourite final sentence you want to tell us about, feel free to drop us line.

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