Some Thoughts on First Lines

We hear all the time how important first lines are in hooking a reader’s attention. First lines must provoke curiosity, create anticipation, and move seamlessly into the sentences that follow. That’s not what I want to focus on today, but if you’re interested in the elements of good first lines, check out the following posts:

12 Ways to Open Your Novel from Fiction Notes

Writing That First Line from The Writers Alley

First Lines from

Inspired Openings from Adventures in YA Publishing

Instead, I’m more interested in what the “right” first line gives to the writer.

by sippakorn of

Recently I found myself having trouble digging in to a short story I’ve been trying to write. I have a premise, characters, conflict, and even a rough idea for the plot. Sounds like I should be having no problem writing the story, right? Wrong.

I’ve started and stopped working on the story over the past few months, picking it up only to set it back down again. For a while, I thought my troubles in executing were because I hadn’t let the story simmer in my mind long enough.

Then I realized the real reason. My opening scene—particularly my opening line—wasn’t strong enough to hang the rest of the story on.

In the drafting stage, I don’t care about hooking readers. My only concern is getting to “the end”. And while I know what the shape of this story should be, my starting point is very fuzzy. Hence my troubles.

Starting points are a fundamental aspect of the architecture of a story. Everything that comes after the beginning cannot exist in the reader’s mind without the context the start of the story creates. Similarly, as a writer, each sentence I write affects the trajectory of the story. Where I choose to begin can have huge ramifications on what follows.

Even though I’d say 90% of the time I rewrite my first lines, I still need one—regardless of how imperfect—to help me write my story.

So what makes for a strong first line that facilitates the writer’s drafting process?

  • It should give you an organizational framework that dictates how you tell the story.
  • It should pose a question that you as a writer want to answer.
  • It must keep you writing.

Have you ever gotten stuck on your first line at the drafting phase? How did it affect your process? And how did you get unstuck?

You Know What Happens When You Assume Things…

Assumptions sometimes get a bad rap. A lot of times they make an ass out of you and me, but that’s often only in hindsight. In fact, I’d posit assumptions are essential to living, and, along with that, writing.
After all, an assumption is made based on the information you have on hand or experiences you’ve acquired and can extrapolate from. For example, deciding what to wear based on a glance out the window—I assume I won’t need a rain jacket because the sun is out. Or I assume I can make cream of cauliflower soup because I’ve made cream of broccoli soup in the past.
The assumptions we make are based on our accrued knowledge. So we accrue knowledge to survive, but that doesn’t mean that knowledge is always enough to navigate our world. Mistakes do happen, and that’s actually a good thing for writers.
As people read our stories and novels, they are interpreting our words and trying to make sense of the world we’ve presented them with. To do this, they must make assumptions. For example, if I don’t point out that the sky is green in my story and people get around by walking on their hands, my readers will assume the sky is blue and people walk like normal.
So if on page 30 I suddenly point out that the sky in my world is actually green, that forces the reader to stop and reevaluate what I’ve told them. This can be a bad thing when it throws the reader out of the story. But for some story elements, particularly reveals, this can be a neat trick and make your reader even more invested in figuring out your story as they try to fit the pieces together into a cohesive whole.
“But what does it all mean?”
I like to do this particularly at the opening of a story, where I’m trying to hook a reader’s interest by slowly dealing out world details. Readers will make assumptions based on what is mentioned and/or described, along with what isn’t. And depending on how those details complement one another or how they disrupt one another, my reader will make assumptions about the larger story world that can potentially make the worldbuilding easier on me.
As writers, we should all be relying on a reader’s assumption about genre conventions when crafting our stories except when those conventions interfere with the story we’re writing. In other words, we should be using these assumptions as world building shorthand except when they get in the way. Big deviations, ones that will just cause more confusion than not, however, should probably be addressed as soon as possible so you don’t disorient the reader.
But for me, I like to use reader assumptions and turn them on their head sometimes. As James Killick discusses in Reveals and Revelations,
If you break it down, there are only really two types of revelation that can be made within a story – revelations about the story and revelations about character. The differences should be fairly self-explanatory – a revelation about the story is when something is revealed outside of character – who the murderer is, who is sleeping with the heroine’s husband. Character revelation is when something is revealed about character – a hidden trait, an unrealised dream, a hitherto misinterpreted desire.
And both of these (when successful) work because the author has leveraged the reader’s assumptions about the story. The trick is setting them up (which is another post entirely :P).
As readers, we make all kinds of assumptions based on what’s presented to us by the author, as well as unconsciously, based on our own personal and cultural biases. Remember the social media explosion when peoplewere surprised that Rue was black in the movie version of The Hunger Games? That was attributed to a tendency of assumed whiteness where readers assume literary characters are white unless told otherwise. In fact, as The Hunger Games demonstrated, those details stating otherwise can be easily overlooked in a culture of assumed whiteness (and it must be said, poor literacy skills).
So what does that mean for the writer? Well, I think in some ways it’s our duty to engage with these assumptions and draw attention to them by disrupting them in unique ways without sacrificing story. Particularly the more insidious ones related to gender and race and power (and Juliette Wade has a great post on this subject).
But ultimately playing with readers’ assumptions is just another tool in your toolbox. So use it wisely.

var gaJsHost = ((“https:” == document.location.protocol) ? “https://ssl.” : “http://www.”); document.write(unescape(“%3Cscript src='” + gaJsHost + “’ type=’text/javascript’%3E%3C/script%3E”)); try { var pageTracker = _gat._getTracker(“UA-15029142-1”); pageTracker._trackPageview(); } catch(err) {}

Untangling Plot Threads

I spent yesterday wrangling the unwieldy plot threads of one of my scifi WIPs. Just about all of them. It was intense work, but absolutely necessary if I wanted to, you know, finish the book.

Photo by Gurms at Flickr

My plotting was compounded by the fact that I hadn’t really worked on this story for nearly a year. Sure, I workshopped a couple of chapters over the summer with my writing group, but, for better for worse, this year has been about getting my historical romance ready to query (check) in addition to writing and revising a half-dozen speculative fiction short stories (check check).

Now, with those goals well in hand, it was time to turn my attention back to this particular story. It has a lot of potential—well, at least I think it does—but it also has a lot of problems, some of which I talked about way back in Exorcising Demons.

But it’s not hopeless, which I established after reading through the whole story start to finish. That doesn’t mean those 60k words are beautiful, mind you, but (I think) I can work with them.

The bigger issue is that I essentially have three versions of the story I’m trying to juggle:

Version 1 – my initial draft, with two viewpoint characters, simplistic plot, overblown romantic subplot, and mustache-twirling villain.

Version 2 – partially revised draft (note partially), with three viewpoint characters now including the antagonist (note shift from villain to antagonist), reduced romance, and more plot events of the variety “something cool happens here”.

Version 3 – the supercool idealized version that lives in my head, with new character quirks and backstories, set pieces, and ambitious socio-cultural details to be included.

And yesterday was all about resolving these different versions. Good times. Especially since I never finished resolving the second version with the first version. Note to self: Never do that again.

So how did I make it work?

1) Stew – I always kept this story in the back of my mind, stewing over the characters and plot until I had the time to fully devote to it. This is how Version 3 came to life.

2) Reread – Rereading what I had already wrote helped to clarify what changes had been made and what ones hadn’t, as well as gave me the confidence to tackle even more onerous ones. Also, the refamiliarization was essential for getting me back into this story since it had been so long.

3) Write – I actually tried to pick up where Version 2 left off and make the changes I had originally planned to while working in Version 3 details as well. Got about 4k in, then decided I really needed to start from the beginning.*

4) Outline – Yep, I basically sat down yesterday and wrote out a rough outline for the entire book, synthesizing elements from all three versions. And now I feel confident enough to begin the revisions in earnest.

*This is why I have trouble with Nano – I get to a certain point in a new story then realize that I need to step back and revise from the beginning. I don’t start over per se, but I tend to write a discovery first draft, usually a partial draft, until I really understand what my story is about. When that realization comes, I can’t make any forward progress until I resolve the issues that linger in the first part of the story.

I won’t say I have things figured out with absolute certainty – I’m sure I’ll be switching out plot points and what not, but for now, I finally feel I have a handle on this story instead of the other way around. Which makes me excited to actually dig in and make the changes the book needs.

We’ll see how much progress I make this December.

How did you work through a problematic plot? Have you ever had to straddle different story versions? How did you make it work?
var gaJsHost = ((“https:” == document.location.protocol) ? “https://ssl.” : “http://www.”); document.write(unescape(“%3Cscript src='” + gaJsHost + “’ type=’text/javascript’%3E%3C/script%3E”)); try { var pageTracker = _gat._getTracker(“UA-15029142-1”); pageTracker._trackPageview(); } catch(err) {}

Resource Roundup Part 4 – Opening Your Story

Your opening pages will make or break your story. I wish I was overstating it, but there it is, in cold black text. If I had to boil down what I learned in the WD webinar Start your Story Right – How to Hook an Agent with Your Opening Pages, it would be that your first pages are the single most important thing in determining your success with agents, editors, book buyers, and ultimately paying readers.

Sounds daunting. But Resource Roundup is here to help.

As in previous posts in this series (Finding the Right Word, Conjuring Up Titles, and Crafting Dialogue), I focused on online resources. There were a ton of posts out there, which I’ve gone through and evaluated for their usefulness. But if you’ve come across other valuable resources, please tell me about them in the comments, and I’ll include them when I add this to my Resource Roundup page on the sidebar.

And if these posts aren’t enough for you, be sure to check out the Writer’s Knowledge Base, a new search engine for writing related posts (thanks to author Elizabeth Spann Craig and Mike Fleming).

The Industry’s Take

Think of the last time you browsed at a book store or library. When you skimmed through the first chapter, what made you keep reading? What made you put the book down and pick up something else? Now imagine that process on larger scale as agents and editors weed through submissions. Yikes.

Some conferences offer workshops where opening pages are read and a panel of agents and editors indicate when they would stop reading and why. Author Therese Walsh went through this process as described in Agents and the First Two Pages via Writer Unboxed, and she provides some impressions for how to make your work stand out. Writer Livia Blackburne (who you may know from A Brain Scientist’s Take on Writing) also identified the 7 Reasons Agent’s Stop Reading Your First Chapter in a post at Guide to Literary Agents based on a similar conference session.

From the other side of the table, agent Kristen Nelson offers her insights from these types of sessions in her posts The Toughest Workshop to Give and Post Workshop Debrief. If you want to know what types of openings do work for her, check out this post Opening Pages that Caught Our Attention.

The post First Pages, First Impressions via Routines for Writers provides a librarian’s insights as to what makes her keep reading a book. And if you don’t know how influential librarians can be to book sales, shame on you.

Author Janice Hardy says writers have essentially 250 Chances to grab a reader. More recently, Author Jody Hedlund discusses the Increasing Importance of the First Chapter not just for unpublished authors who want to stand out in the slush pile, but also for published authors given the availability of digital previews.

Opening Lines

Some people say forget the first chapter, forget the first few pages, you must grab me with your opening line. That’s a lot of pressure for one sentence – the lynchpin for the rest of your work.

So how to you begin? Fiction Notes thoroughly classifies different types of Opening Lines. You can also get a sense of more general Types of Book and Chapter Openings from Kathy Teaman’s blog Writing and Illustrating.

Author Janice Hardy offers some insights for how to write a good first line in her post First and a Lot More than Ten at her blog Other Side of the Story.

Want some inspiration? Check out the 100 Best First Lines from Novels courtesy of the American Book Review. Adventures in Children’s Publishing has also collected compelling openings from Young Adult and Children’s novels.

Balancing Act

There are a lot of story elements to juggle when starting your story. As Les Edgerton, author of Hooked explains, an opening scene has ten core components: (1) the inciting incident; (2) the story-worthy problem; (3) the initial surface problem; (4) the setup; (5) backstory; (6) a stellar opening sentence; (7) language; (8) character; (9) setting; and (10) foreshadowing. (To learn more about Hooked, see this recap.)

Author Joanna Bourne assures us that it is “technically difficult” to start a story, and she offers some general advice in her post Technical Topics – Five Pointers on Openings, including hitting the ground running and revealing character.

Freelance editor Jason Black provides some insights on How to Establish Your Characters in the opening pages of your story.

You’ve probably also heard the mantra “Start with action.” But action without a strong sense of character or emotional context can leave your readers scratching their heads. Publishing guru Jane Friedman deconstructs this idea in her posts The Biggest Bad Advice about Story Openings and Story Openings: What Constitutes Significant/Meaningful Action? Be sure you aren’t starting with action for action’s sake.

When you think you’ve done all you can with you opener, take a look at A Litmus Test for Your Opening Scene via Fiction Groupie to see if you got what it takes.

If you are still having difficulty crafting a satisfying opening, check out the post Trouble Opening Your Story at Write Anything to see if their suggestions help you rework your beginning.

What Not To Do

Still not sure if your opening is a winner? Take a look at the following posts to ensure you aren’t making common mistakes with your beginning:

Agent Kristen Nelson gives examples of Killer Openings that can almost guarantee a rejection.

Author Kristen Lamb offers up some common problems from your opening pages that may foreshadow other issues later on in your story in the post The Doctor is in the House – Novel Diagnostics.

Author Therese Walsh from Writer Unboxed shares her impressions on Beginnings as a result of judging contests.

Remember 7 Reasons Agent’s Stop Reading Your First Chapter from earlier? If you’ve found you are guilty of one of these examples, read Janice Hardy’s post Seven Deadly Sins (If You’re a First Chapter) to see how to fix your beginning.

Special Case of Prologues

Prologues are out of vogue right now. Some agents and editors have an autoreject policy when a dreaded prologue comes across their desk. Why do they have such a bad rap?

Agent Kristen Nelson suggests that they are often employed incorrectly or are simply unnecessary in her post Why Prologues Often Don’t Work. Former agent Nathan Bransford also weighs in on what makes a prologue work (or not).

Authors Janice Hardy in Pondering the Prologue and Kathy Temean in To Prologue or Not to Prologue offer questions to help you decide whether a prologue is essential to your story.

I hope you find these resources as you craft your awesome opening for your story. And if I’ve overlooked anything, please let me know in the comments.

var gaJsHost = ((“https:” == document.location.protocol) ? “https://ssl.” : “http://www.”); document.write(unescape(“%3Cscript src='” + gaJsHost + “’ type=’text/javascript’%3E%3C/script%3E”)); try { var pageTracker = _gat._getTracker(“UA-15029142-1”); pageTracker._trackPageview(); } catch(err) {}