Saturday, January 5, 2013

Killer first lines

Life just ain’t fair. You work your heart out on a story, spend months writing, revising, and rewriting some 50,00 words or more. Then you send your precious darling off with high hopes and what happens? An agent or editor may not read more than the first sentence. If you’re lucky or your writing shows promise, maybe they’ll finish the paragraph or even first page.

What’s up with that? Alane Ferguson taught a WIFYR workshop a few years back. She said agents and editors are busy people and hundreds of manuscripts cross their desks each year. They’re not looking at story but need to quickly assess writing potential. Agent John Cusick receives 5,000 queries a year. In a few short sentences, you have to stand out from the crowd. One way to do that is with a powerful first line.

The local SCBWI chapter sponsored an evening event at the Salt Lake City library once with speaker Clint Johnson. In his presentation, titled “Great Beginnings,” he said he tries to hook the reader on the first line. If they are intrigued, maybe they’ll read on through the 1st paragraph, then the 1st page, and on and on.

Johnson went further. He said there are three things imperative to a story’s opening. You should present conflict, pose questions, and reveal character. Conflict is the driving element of the story. We naturally want to see conflict resolved so it is a reason to read on. Pose questions, or better yet, write so that readers pose their own questions and thus want to read further for answers. The main character’s POV is the door into the story. Johnson said to try to hit all three in the first line.

Similarly, John Cusick said he wants the entire book in the first line or paragraph.

Then comes the question of where to start the story. Gone are the days of the soft break-in of character or setting. Readers today (and publishers) want action from the get-go. We’re told to never begin at the beginning, but start at the middle. Avoid too much backstory or info dumping.

I rewrote the start of my NaNo story and shared it with my critique group. They get hungry and I have to feed them every once in a while. I spent a few hours perfecting that first chapter. My first line was good, but they didn’t like where I started. They want me to do it again.

Life isn’t fair.


Scott said...

I hear ya, man. You carefully plan your action adventure to build and build to a thrilling climax, and you get a rejection because it looks like a quiet book on the first page, which is all that was looked at. Right. A quiet book full of death and destruction and suspenseful chase scenes, with sword fights and explosions and deadly monsters. But your MC is an orphan farm boy and the first scene shows him at home with his goats. In the second scene, which was part of your submission but was apparently not read, he's attacked by the evil wizard and his pet giant scorpion, but the first scene is critical to expose character and to show that this is the day when everything changed. Not fair at all.

Scott said...
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