Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Nailing Your Opening Sentence

Every once in a while, I see a manuscript that hooks me from the first sentence. Yes, one sentence can make my heart beat faster. And then I read the second sentence, and my stomach can . And then I read the next and the next and the next. And that heady feeling I'm getting all started with one superbly crafted first sentence.

Don't worry about writing this holy grail of a sentence until you've reached the end of your story.. First, a perfect beginning is nothing without a great entire manuscript. Second, most people take time to get a true handle on their stories. This means there's no point fussing over the beginning ... at the beginning. Your first start may not be your last.

But once you've written the end and revised the big-picture items of your draft, it's time to obsess, at least a bit. A great first sentence is one that makes the reader ache for the next. You do that by evoking strong emotion. And you do that through:

What that tone is and what unexpected looks like will depend on the age group and genre you are writing for. However, the unexpected usually reverses conventions – by looking at something normal in a new way, putting something normal in a novel context, or putting something novel in a normal context.

Humorous Picture Book
When I bought my rhinoceros, I didn't really know what I was getting into. - Jon Agee, My Rhinoceros  
Why it works: Sets the tone and the unusual problem in a humorously understated way.

Nonfiction Picture Book
Dolores is a teacher, but her students are too hungry to listen. - Sarah Warren, Dolores Huerta: A Hero to Migrant Workers
Why it works: Introduces the main character and gives her an unexpected, yet important and compelling obstacle.

Middle Grade Fantasy
Sophie had waited all her life to be kidnapped. - Soman Chaini, The School for Good and Evil
Why it works: Introduces the main character, sets the tone, and throws convention out the window in nine simple words.

Contemporary Middle Grade
"Tall," I said.
"No,what do you really want to be when you grow up?" said Molly: - Michael Fry, The Odd Squad. Zero Tolerance.
Why it works: It starts revealing the main character (short, sarcastic), and sets the tongue-in-cheek tone.  Also, sometimes you don’t have to aim for the perfect first sentence.  A group of quick sentences can be just as strong.

Some beginning sentences are compelling because they beg questions, and the only way to get answers is to read more:
  • The rabbits were quite unsuspecting. - Dietlof Reich, The Haunting of Freddy (Book 4)
  • 124 was spiteful. - Toni Morison, Beloved.
  • Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu. - Ha Jin, Waiting
  • In a sense, I am Jacob Horner. - John Barth, The End of the Road.
  • It was the day my grandmother exploded. - Ian Banks, Crow Road

But what if the first scene does not set up anything unexpected?
Ask yourself if your manuscript starts too early – if you are laying down too much unnecessary “road work” before the story really gets going. Just because you, the author, need to understand the characters and their backstory doesn’t mean the readers need all that information at the get-go. Solution: pick a stronger starting point. But what your start is just fine -- what if you need normal and humdrum in order to create the bedlam that follows?

Perhaps the unexpected thing is the point of view, not the events:
The sun shone, having no alternative, on nothing new. – Samuel Beckett, Murphy 

Perhaps the unexpected is merely throwing convention right in the reader’s face:

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” – J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye

Or you can always hook the reader by telling them why they should stick around. Foreshadowing can easily feel trite or heavy-handed if not used with a light touch, but it can also be used to great effect:

“A day and a half ago I killed a man and the thought weighs heavily on my mind.” – Sue Grafton, A is for Alibi (this is a minor cheat: it is the third sentence)

You can also juxtapose the seemingly mundane with what’s about to break loose:

“The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years--if it ever did end--began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.” – Stephen King, IT

Foreshadowing needn't rest in the realm of thrillers and horror, either. Every story has conflict, this technique could work for any genre.

Hopefully, by now I've convinced you that one little sentence can draw a reader in. Now it’s your turn – take a new look at your manuscript and see whether you could make your beginning stronger. And share in the comments below: What are some of your favorite first sentences? Why do they work for you?

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Fishing for Powerful Beginnings

Today's guest post was written by Kerbie Addis.

For many writers, creating a powerful beginning is a daunting task. Convincing a reader to stick around for the next twenty or thirty chapters seems almost impossible, but luckily there’s advice out there for writers:

While these familiar fishing metaphors act as guides for creating strong beginnings, they are sometimes used incorrectly. A car exploding on page one might be exciting, but we won’t have a reason to care. Opening with a graphic scene might shock the reader into paying attention, but attention wanes after several pages lacking plot. While we’re told to “hook” and “bait” readers, shoving bait in a fish’s face will only scare it away.

To expound on the fishing analogy, I’d like to introduce the technique of reeling in. This relies on a necessary component for novelists - the inciting incident.

The inciting incident, as many writers know, is the crucial moment that begins the story’s conflict. In Harry Potter, for example, the inciting incident is Harry’s acceptance to Hogwarts. In Legally Blonde, the inciting incident is Elle being dumped by her boyfriend. In order to create a powerful beginning for your novel, you first have to identify the inciting incident.

Once you’ve identified the inciting incident, reel it in. But how far back should you reel in? Developing appropriate distance between page one and the inciting incident takes practice and experimentation. However, the reader will need time to establish the world and time to care about the main character.

Establishing the world isn’t just for fantasy and science fiction, where worldbuilding is a must. If the inciting incident shatters your character’s life and changes everything, we have to know what this means for them. For the reader, you must establish the status quo in order to destroy it. If the turning point for your protagonist is finding a dead body, don’t begin with that. Show us a world where this sort of thing shouldn’t happen - or maybe it’s a world where it’s all too common.

What is your protagonist doing beforehand? Give us a character to empathize with so we feel their disgust and horror at stumbling across a stiff. Would this change them? Is this just another day for them? We need a feel for your character’s personality before having them thrown into a horrifying or action-packed scene.

This isn’t to say you should start your novel with a character staring into a cup of coffee, in deep introspection. Once you have a fish on the hook, you must keep tension in the line. In other words, once you draw a reader in, you have to keep things tense and interesting to keep them engaged. Even if you begin with nothing exciting, give us the promise that something exciting will happen very soon.

Hook us with your first few pages. Use the first chapter as bait to draw us in.

These bits of wisdom are good advice - when explained properly. Baited hooks are a game of patience, requiring the fisherman to try different fishing spots and proper technique by reeling in with a tight line. In writing, you may need several attempts to find just the right starting point for your story. But with practice, you can find a proper balance that will leave readers begging for the next page. 

Kerbie Addis writes young adult speculative fiction. She is currently a college student and works as a reference assistant in her university library. In her spare time, she is a freelance editor and amateur video game theorist. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Weaving Fact Into Fiction

Writing fiction is fascinating, especially if it is done right. But how can you make it right? How can you convince the reader to go beyond the first chapter? Fiction is mostly about using your rich imagination to create the scenery, the characters, and the story. But it can become something even greater if you conduct a bit of research related to your topic. You should include real facts regarding your primary topic in your book. Why? Because a reader will find it easier to slip into the “reality” you present in the book. Of course, you don’t have to make your manuscript read like documentary. A few well-sprinkled facts, here and there, go a long way to keeping the reader hooked to your story.

When you start with a new project, don’t bother with the title and the names of the chapters, or how many chapters you will have in the end. The first, and most important, is to set the main topic. And then the scene. The main characters’ knowledge base. Remember, you don’t have to just research places, events, and procedural facts. Behavioral research can help you create believably flawed characters with complex motivations. All these aspects and more can benefit from a bit of research. Search legitimate sources and note anything you think it will do you good.

Image by Maria Noordegraaf, Flickr
While some authors skimp over the research aspect of writing, others can go overboard.   Don’t feel like you need to – or should! – use all the information you garner, however. Fragments that can be successfully inserted in the story will be more useful. It will give the story that real touch, that feeling that it is anchored, even for some limited moments, in real life. Instead of dumping all your research into clumpy paragraphs, grab a hold of these notes as you will need them. Sometimes it might be easier – or more important – to get the details right as you write the scene, but other times you can concentrate on capturing your ideas and letting the words flow, then adding those realistic tidbits on your second go-around.               

Revising is a critical part of writing, but be careful not to smother your story with too many details. Details are good for creating the right scenario and giving the correct information about the things going in the story. But only in portions. Too much information hampers both tension and the forward movement of the plot and will make the reader fall asleep while reading your book. So, do give your reader the details that help color your scene or the action – that help complete the picture – but don’t make the mistake of writing like the facts are the picture, because they never are in novels. People read fiction for the story not to find out in three whole pages how the chamber of the library was looking like, or something similar. Your primary task is to make the story catchy, and give details only to complete the experience.

Image by Gin P.H. (Gambargin)
So, what to include? Good research can help you decide the best details. But don’t forget to put yourself in your characters shoes. What would they notice? Care about? What would affect their actions or moods?  The answer is going to be different for every character, and in fact, the details that you choose to convey can not only help to create a more realistic setting and procedures, but also flesh out your character as a distinct entity. And all that helps create those series of moments that make the real world fade away for the reader while the pages keep turning, and that, of course, is your ultimate goal.  

This week's post was written by Raluca Baban with Ella Kennen.