Friday, July 25, 2008

From the Desk of Nephele Tempest: How to Write a Killer Sentence -- PART ONE

New writers and seasoned pros alike often put a great deal of emphasis on the first line of their work. Whether it's a novel or a short story or a piece of narrative prose, there is no denying that the first sentence can sometimes determine whether your reader chooses to go any farther. Writing professors preach the benefits of a killer first line -- something that reaches out and grabs you by the throat and drags you down, allowing the rest of the story to hold you until the bitter end. As readers you understand how a great first line can capture your attention -- the type that, when you skim over it standing in your local bookstore, makes you head for the cash register, your mind made up. You know what they look like, probably even have a couple memorized. But why are those lines so fabulous? What precisely makes them so enticing? And how on earth is anyone supposed to come up with a fantastic first line of their own?

First lines come in all shapes and sizes. Some tell you at a glance what your entire book is about, such as the Jane Austen classic from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE:

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."

Twenty-three words, and Austen has given you a dozen clues to the contents of her novel, including a single line that tells you the gist of the major plot line. It's a pretty safe bet that there will be some romance along the way, and most likely a girl without money -- since one with money would be less likely to concern herself with her prospective husband's fortunes. There's also a pretty good chance that this book will have a sense of humor, since Austen uses a certain tongue-in-cheek tone right from the start. After all, most readers would probably agree that the idea of a rich young man needing a wife is more likely to be the opinion held by the mamas in the neighborhood than by the gentleman in question. Is this going to be a modern book? Probably not. While twenty-first century girls might still be looking for a man with money, the way this sentence is phrased is not in the least bit modern. So even without checking the copyright, it's probably safe to guess you're dealing with a period piece.

Other first lines give away secrets -- things you might never expect to learn so early in the story. These are unusual and put the readers on their guard and force them to ask questions about the reliability of the narrator, or whether the book is actually from one genre but masquerading in another. An excellent example is the opening line of the prologue to Donna Tartt's THE SECRET HISTORY:

"The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of the situation."

I'm going to cheat a bit here, and give you the second line as well:

"He'd been dead for ten days before they found him, you know."

Well, if this is a murder mystery, chances are that we already know from the start who the killer or killers are. We might not know the narrator's name, but we're already clued into his involvement in Bunny's death, whether it was cold blooded murder or an accident, because the narrator knows that Bunny is dead before the body is found. What else can we learn about this book from the opening? What type of a man is called Bunny? Certainly not a trucker or a Navy SEAL; more like someone with a sister named Muffy, who spends his summers on Nantucket or in the Hamptons, playing tennis and drinking dry martinis. Also, do we see Bunny as the type of person one kills in cold blood? The name is soft, harmless--which might indicate something about the motives or the temperament of the killer. Well, what about the killer? Is it the narrator? What can we discern about the person telling us the story? He seems to have known Bunny. And he knows the rest of the people involved in Bunny's death -- well enough to include himself as part of their group, to speak of them all as one unit. Is he old or young? Rich or poor? Guilty or innocent of the crime that might have been committed? A great deal can be gleaned by paying attention to the narrator's tone and word use. Some first sentences simply give you background, showing you a glimpse of the world you're about to visit. The information is pertinent and in many cases intriguing -- factual, visual, situational -- it sets the stage for the action to come. Nalini Singh uses this approach in the first book of her paranormal romance series, SLAVE TO SENSATION:

"In an effort to reduce the overwhelming incidence of insanity and serial killing in the Psy population, the Psy Council decided, in the year 1969, to instigate a rigorous program called Silence."

We haven't met any of the characters, we're not quite sure what this book is about yet, but we still have plenty of intriguing information just from that first sentence. Chances are good this is some sort of a fantasy book, given the reference to the Psy and the Psy Council -- neither of which sound familiar. And there's also a certain amount of intrigue, as this sentence raises plenty of questions. Why were these Psy going insane? Why were they becoming serial killers? What exactly is Silence, and how did it help this situation? We want to read more in order to get our answers. But none of this tells you how to write a good first sentence, does it? So let's take a look at a few potential strategies. First of all, and possibly most important, do not get hung up on writing your first sentence when you sit down to begin writing your novel. A fabulous first sentence, in all likelihood, will take a great deal of thought, as well as a thorough understanding of your story. You want to know what happens at the end of the book before you tackle that beginning. Now, don't misunderstand -- I don't mean that you shouldn't write the start of the book at all. Of course you need a first sentence; you just don't need the first sentence. There's no point staring at a blank page until your eyes bleed in hopes of having an epiphany of epic proportions. Just write. Write your book, worry about plot and characterization and pacing and descriptive details. Edit it a few times through, run spell check, make sure your dialogue always fits the person saying it. Then set the entire thing aside and let it seep into your brain. Now you're ready to consider that first sentence, to work on it and polish it and make it truly work for you...


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Blogger Lapillus said...

Very insightful. Thanks for the great post! Looking forward to Part Two.

Friday, July 25, 2008 at 2:13:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So would 'Never, never will I sign that accursed document' be classed as a good first line. I have tried to come up with a better one but always go back to the first line I thought of.

It is a great post... shall be back for part two

Wednesday, August 13, 2008 at 11:44:00 AM EDT  

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