Friday, September 30

Writing the First Sentence

I'm surrounded by my favorite novels, all opened to their first pages.
Each first line is distinctly unique.
The style, the rhythm, the structure... the first line fits the second line, fits the paragraph, fits the entire novel so perfectly.

It's so easy to read the first line of a novel, especially if it grabs the reader, making you want to sink your teeth into the book.

But writing that first line, well, that's not quite so easy.

Every writer may have a different approach to writing it, but, I assume, none find it easy to get that first line so perfect the first time they sit down to start writing a new story.

Many books and blogs write about hooking the reader from the start. Listed among the criteria is often something like "a killer first line" or "a first sentence that grabs hold of the reader and won't let go." But it's rare to find more details on this important component to hooking the reader.

What exactly makes a killer first line? The ones surrounding me are all so different, yet each one worked like magic.

As in almost all these blog posts, I write this off the top of my head, just me and my opinion here. But here's what I think when it comes to writing a first line stunner. This is the process I use. It may or may not work for other writers.

Writing the First Sentence

1. Gather the Ingredients.

Hopefully you've already written down some parts of the story (i.e., character details, setting descriptions, even major and/or minor plot points). Use these ingredients to settle on the first opening scene of the story. Identify the voice, the main character's want, and the first source of conflict (all parts of the first chapter).

2. Draw the Scene.

Illustrate the scene. Write a list of images. Make a diagram. Do something on paper to get the ingredients down and teased apart. Save the Pinterest photo collage for later. This step requires paper and a pen. Consider the character's "before" moment. Look closer in this scene. What details stand out that you want to develop? What action speaks louder than the others? How does the scenery impact the mood?

3. Examples.

I consider so many books, so many authors to be my teachers. Time and time again I'll open all my favorite books and short stories and reread the first couple of sentences by the various authors. Some I hand write in my example notebook. I read them aloud. I get the rhythm. I study the sentence structure.

4. Start Your Story Ten Different Ways.

Maybe more than ten, but what's important here is to take a piece of paper or even a notebook. Write at the top of the first page "Possible Openings" (not "Possible First Sentences" because to get into the rhythm you'll want to write more than the first sentence.) Use this step to give yourself grace. Tell yourself none of these are going to be perfect, but have fun with them. Look to some of your examples. Take out a book of poetry and read lines at random. Let the rhythms simmer and then try out a few words of your own. If it jars, stop and start over on a new line. Start with a different word, a new detail. Begin with one of the five senses.

5. Run with it. For now.

After step 4, one detail, one moment will start to rise above the others as the one you want to go with. Perhaps your first sentence is exactly perfect, but for now, use the best one you've written and continue with it. Write the first paragraph with that first sentence. Take a break. Walk away. Then come back to it, read it aloud and look for three important elements: (1) Circle the character's identifying words, (2) Underline the words that carry the voice or tone of the paragraph, and (3) Star words that show plot or conflict or want. If your paragraph is missing any of these three things, start over in a blank space and add in the missing element.

6. Finish the chapter, or the first 50 pages, then go back.

I think the first 50 pages are the most important ones. If done well, the reader will keep going. But a reader won't invest their time and energy in reading more if they're frustrated or bored by that mark. After I've finished writing the first chapter, I go back to the beginning and read the opening paragraph. Does it fit with the rest of the chapter? Is it the best image/scene/detail to begin the first chapter with? Depending on how I answer these questions, I may or may not rewrite that first page or first paragraph. Then I go on to writing the next chapter. Once the entire manuscript is finished I set it aside for weeks. Most often after that much time has passed, I go back and make changes to the first sentence/first paragraph. I might draw from a line I like better that I wrote somewhere else in the book. Or I might keep it until I get feedback from critique partners.

I used to feel overwhelmed when it came to writing the first line of a story. So much pressure to get it right. We read published books and short stories that seem so clever and perfect, but it's easy to forget that these are polished drafts that have had numerous people giving the authors advice before we get to read them. The first drafts of these books may not look like the final draft, but we'll never know that. Use these final drafts to guide and teach you, but don't forget that your first draft doesn't have to be perfect.

Now I approach writing the opening line of a story as a game. I fill up pages and pages with possibilities. The crazier the better. The bigger the range of different ways the more likely I am to find one that clicks with me. And when one does sing, then I find the entire voice of the story open up for me and writing that story becomes so much easier.

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