Friday, July 25, 2008

From the Desk of Nephele Tempest -- PART TWO

How To Write a Killer Sentence...continued...

Try asking yourself the following questions:

Is the beginning of the book really where the story should start? Meaning, are you starting too early in the action? Maybe you should drop the first five pages and start a bit later? Or, conversely, you might have left something off at the beginning that would make a better impact as your opening scene.

What tone does the book have? Is it light and amusing? Dark and frightening? Romantic? Sarcastic? That's the tone you want for your first sentence. It should fit snuggly with sentences number two and on, not jar the reader or feel like something you just glued on for impact.

What are you looking to accomplish with that first sentence? What would you like to convey? Do you want to tease or to shock? Reveal or disguise? Does your book call for something traditional, along the vein of Once Upon a Time? Would a cliché be appropriate or a distraction? Are you looking for something quiet and thoughtful, or something tension-filled and anticipatory? Do you want to introduce a character or a setting or a premise? That first sentence has a job to do; figure out the job first, and the sentence itself will come more easily.

A few things more you might especially want to keep in mind:

Beware of starting your book at a point that actually alienates your reader. It's important to introduce them to your story, to give them clues as to where they should stand during the book's action. An argument between two characters might be an emotional start to the narrative, but if the reader does not know either of them, they have no idea whose side to take. And more importantly, they might not care. To them, it's just a couple of people they don't know who are fighting about something they know nothing about -- like two strangers yelling on the street as you walk by. You might turn your head at the noise level, but you're not interested enough to hang out and listen.

Likewise, starting your wonderful fantasy or adventure novel in the middle of a battle might lose readers as well. Who is fighting? Why? Which side is the reader supposed to be rooting for? Yes, it's dramatic to have someone sliced open with a sword on the first page, but if the reader has no connection to that character, they have no reason to hope they'll survive -- or wish them dead. They won't even know which they're supposed to hope for.

What are your favorite books, and how do they start? Try reading the first sentences of some of your most frequent re-reads, and determine how that first sentence relates to the whole. What do you like about the book, and do you feel the same way about that opening line? How do you think the writer came up with that particular line? Why did they make the choices that they did?

A single sentence will not break you if you do not come up with something earth-shattering. Very few people will read one sentence and then throw the book out and go find something else. You actually do have a little more time than that to grab your reader's attention. But that's no reason to slack off on that first sentence. Just keep in mind that there is a second sentence, and a third, and that when you put them together you are building a trap -- something to suck your reader in and keep them wanting more.

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Blogger Robena Grant said...

this was interesting. Thank you. I've seen a lot of smart first lines lately but they seem out of sync with the following sentences and first paragraph.

It's almost like they are written in omniscient, sweeping wide then pulling back in tight. Then the story kicks off with third person present tense. There is a jolt from the reader (at least for me) that takes me momentarily out of the story, where I'm saying, huh?

Monday, July 28, 2008 at 11:34:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Kimber Li said...

Jacqueline Lichtenberg, the Great Lady of Science Fiction, says to start the story at the point in which the main protagonist makes the statement or action which changes everything and starts the plot moving forward. It sounds so simple, but it isn't for me. I've learned one thing, once I nail a beginning the story's ready to launch into Queryland.

Monday, July 28, 2008 at 11:02:00 PM EDT  

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