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OFF TO A ROUSING START

Every hopeful novelist or short story writer knows that if an editor isn't grabbed by the first paragraph of a manuscript, that manuscript will probably be returned with a rejection letter. That's why most authors rewrite the first chapter or first few pages of a work many more times than the rest of it. Can you recall a particularly striking example of the first sentence of a novel or story? Here are a few examples of great first lines:


"The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge." Poe, "The Cask of Amontillado"

"As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect." Kafka, "The Metamorphosis" (probably the most famous opening line in literature!)

"Everything starts somewhere, although many physicists disagree." Pratchett, Hogfather

"Five friends I had, and two of them snakes." Buechner, Godric

"It was the devil's own temper that brought me grief, my temper and a skill with weapons born of my father's teachings." L'Amour, Sackett's Land

"Ryan was nearly killed twice in half an hour." Clancy, Patriot Games

"It was the day my grandmother exploded." Bainks, The Crow Road

"Smithfield once blazed with burning martyrs." Cheaney, The Playmaker

These examples are taken from a variety of genres: historical fiction, science fiction, western, espionage thriller, mystery. You'll notice they are very different, a difference that depends mostly on what the author wants to accomplish. The opening line or paragraph can reflect something of the nature of the book or story. In addition, it can introduce the setting ("Smithfield once blazed . . ."), hint at the character's nature ("It was the devil's own temper . . ."), tell the reader what kind of story to expect (". . . I vowed revenge," "Ryan was nearly killed twice . . .") or create a mood or tone ("As Gregor Samsa awoke . . ."). Clearly, not every story can begin with a sentence about exploding grandmothers. But ALL opening sentences or paragraphs, must get the reader's attention. That's their main job.

To get attention, it's not necessary to blow up anything, much less a grandmother. The trick can be done in less extravagant ways. For instance, my upcoming novel, In the Middle of Somewhere, is a humorous story about a road trip. I could have communicated what it was about with this opening sentence:

My mother's unfortunate encounter with a squirrel led to my brother and I taking a memorable trip through Kansas with our grandfather.

But I don't want to merely communicate what the story is about--I want to give the reader some clue of what kind of story to expect. So I began with this:

If my mother hadn't found that squirrel in the toilet, none of this that I'm about to tell you would have happened.

Better? Look at what that one sentence does: it introduces the main character's voice, it hints at the humorous nature of the story (that is, if you find anything funny about squirrels in toilets), and it arouses interest--because what IS that squirrel doing in the toilet anyway??

In my first revision I made one change to the sentence, simply by reversing the two halves. This puts the "kicker" at the end, where kickers naturally belong:

None of this that I'm about to tell you would have happened if my mother hadn't found that squirrel in the toilet.

(If this grabs your attention, be patient: I'll post the first chapter in a few months.)

Writing introductory sentences and paragraphs is not as difficult as it may seem. First, keep in mind a few things to avoid:

  1. Never begin with "It was," as in "It was a lovely spring day" or, "It was a dark and stormy night." (Madeline L'Engle made that line work in A Wrinkle in Time, but no one else can.)
  2. Never begin with "There was," as in "There was an old well behind the barn." "There" is a weak sentence-opener anyway, and much worse as an introduction.
  3. Never begin with "One" or "Once," as in "One day my sister and I" or "Once last summer," or even "Once upon a time."

So what should you do? Here are three effective strategies, if you're writing a story or a narrative about something that really happened to you:

Begin with a quote:
"Hey Jesse, you want a lick of my ice cream?" Cold and dripping, the vanilla cone I held out to him seemed to draw my little brother like a magnet.

Begin in the middle of the action
The minute I saw my brother's red shorts disappear into the cold water of Ipcress Lake, I knew my little joke had gone to far.

Begin with a foreshadowing statement
*My little brother's whining was seriously getting on my nerves that beautiful spring day. Somebody needed a lesson. And somebody got one--but it wasn't my brother.

Catchy introductions aren't just for story-writing. A quick thumb through any magazine will show that most articles begin with a quote, an action or a foreshadowing statement--or a question, a true incident, a joke, or an example. Nonfiction writers have to lavish as much care on their opening paragraphs or pages as fiction writers do.

TRY IT YOURSELF: Find a story or novel that you read recently. Re-read the first paragraph. Then write two alternative paragraphs, using the suggestions above or referring to the opening sentences from literature for inspiration (don't make anyone turn into a cockroach, though). Can you write a better introduction than the original author?

Now, think of an incident from your own life and imagine it as a story. You don't have to write the whole thing, but jot down the separate incidents that would make the beginning, the middle, and the end. Now write two introductory paragraphs that would grab attention for this story. They don't have to be long--some of the most effective opening paragraphs are only one sentence!



 

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