The First Sentence

July 28, 2020

How much time do you spend crafting the first sentence of your novel? I believe it’s the most important line you will write.

The first sentence:

  • draws the reader in
  • sets the scene
  • sets the tone
  • reveals the voice
  • can introduce the main character
  • can introduce the story world
  • can reveal one or more aspects of the character
  • can hint at or directly state the main conflict or a smaller conflict

That’s a lot of material to cover in one sentence. It can sound daunting, yet great writers do it well. Consider the following opening lines:

 

“I’d never given much thought to how I would die – though I’d had reason enough in the last few months – but even if I had, I would not have imagined this.” – Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer

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The reader is drawn in, wondering who is dying and why. We also wonder how the person is dying – it must be unusual. Is this a thriller or murder mystery? Is there a way the person can escape and survive? And what has happened in the last few months? It’s probably a young person since they’ve never thought about dying. This is our introduction to the main character, and since it’s written in first person, we know we will hear the person’s story.

 

 

 

“On the day King George V was crowned at Westminster abbey in London, Billy Williams went down the pit in Aberowen, South Wales.” — Fall of Giants, by Ken Follett

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We are told the timeframe (early 1900s) and the part of the world in which this story takes place. One of the main characters is introduced, although we may wonder what “the pit” is. This sentence also foreshadows the entire story – it’s about how politics and world events affect the lives of everyday people. The reader is wondering what relationship Billy Williams has to King George.

 

 

 

“I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.” — Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi

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This is three sentences, but since they are short and to the point, I am considering them to be the first line of the book. The reader is introduced to the main character, who we infer is a male. Why would a 75-year-old join the army, and where would he be allowed to do so? We know he has a story to tell.

 

 

 

 

“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling

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We infer that this couple is not normal or that their world is not normal or that something abnormal is about to happen. And why are they proud to be normal? As compared to whom? This is our introduction to a “not-normal” world and to a couple who have a large impact on the main character and important roles in the book.

 

 

 

“Two days after the murder, listening to Brett Allen’s tale of innocence and confusion, the lawyer waivered between disbelief and wonder at its richness, so vivid that she could almost picture it as truth.” – The Final Judgment, by Richard North Patterson

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This is a murder mystery. A legal mystery. We wonder if Brett is innocent or guilty. Is Brett a man or a woman and who has been murdered?

All these opening lines illustrate details of the story to come. They touch on different aspects and draw in the reader.

 

 

 

I can spend hours developing that first line. Or I can spend minutes. Usually, I’ve been thinking about the project for a while, and envisioning the world in which it will take place. When I sit down to write, I have a pretty good idea where I want to start and have a visual of the opening scene in my head.

That first line must be right. It doesn’t matter if my novel starts at the beginning or in the middle of an event/relationship/challenge. The first sentence starts the flow. It’s like the gates to a new world. It’s the beginning of the roadmap.

How do you want your reader to feel? Afraid, concerned, excited, curious? It must be in that first sentence. The first paragraph is also important and expands on that initial feeling.

Some writing advice says to skip writing the first sentence if you’re struggling, and come back to it later. Likewise, for the first paragraph.

I can’t. I won’t. I don’t. I do come back and tweak it, but everything flows from the first sentence.

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Sketch Me a Story

April 30, 2019

I write longhand. Yes, with a sketch pad and a rollerball pen. When I get into my zone and write thousands of words at a sitting, I get callouses from the pen rubbing on my fingers.

Typewriters were once the writing instrument of choice. Think Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, Agatha Christie, Tennessee Williams. Even today, some writers choose a typewriter rather than a computer. Think Larry McMurtry, poet Maya Angelou, Danielle Steel. (That’s not me in the picture. I think it’s Agatha Christie.)

typewriter writer

Although I’ve never used a typewriter for writing fiction, the idea prompts feeling of nostalgia — writers long ago, solitarily pounding out stories.

When I began delving into writing fiction a few years ago, I wrote on my laptop. The advice I googled online and found in books about the craft of writing went something like this: “Write as fast as you can, get it all out, and then go back and fix it.” Sounded right.

I rose every morning at 5 am, another suggestion I found. I’m a night owl, yet I groggily sat at my laptop and spewed out the words to my story, all the while devouring online writing advice, most of which made no sense to me.

I wrote ferociously, and it took me 3 months to finish my novel. Then, per more advice, I set it aside for a month. What a sense of accomplishment. I had written a novel! It was 120,000 words.

nightowl

Photo by Quentin Dr on Unsplash

When I brought it back out to “fix it”, I couldn’t. It was crap. The writing was awful, and it needed to be completely rewritten. Spewing didn’t work; I needed to figure out what did work.

The early mornings, unfortunately, remain the best time for me to write. I wake up thinking about my characters and before the day’s activities and distractions start, I sit down and write.

I also recognized that I needed to write more slowly, more thoughtfully. As I looked over my writing, I kept going back to a scene I had written one evening while laying in bed watching TV. I had been compelled to write, so I grabbed a notebook – an actual paper notebook – and pen, and I wrote. It was good, and it made me realize that I feel more creative with a pen and pad of paper. I write thoughtfully, creatively, slowly. I contemplate each sentence and each word.blank sketchpad

In what I can only label divine inspiration, I bought a sketchpad. No margins, no lines, just blank paper. This, too, makes me feel creative. After all, writing is a craft, something it took a while for me to understand.

When I took my first cross-country, overnight train trip last year, I went armed with my writing sketchbook. As we traveled through the Rocky Mountains, I sat in the observation car and attempted to capture the view and the feelings the scenery invoked. I took pictures, but mostly I wrote:

I wake as the day brightens. The train’s motion, coupled with the choo-choo sound of the wheels, had rocked me to sleep like a newborn in a cradle. Out the window of our sleeper I see snow-covered foothills of the Southern Rocky Mountains. Thick clouds hang low and I hope for snow.

Foothills give way to boulder-strewn mountainsides while antelope graze in the plain, the white tufts on their heads the giveaway to this city girl. Boulders and smaller rocks sit on top of and next to each other, reminding me of totem poles and Indians and the Wild West. Higher mountains in the distance show gradations of browns and oranges, and rivers and tributaries traverse the countryside.

train

We cross into Colorado, another mountain range filling the windows, this one with rock walls going straight up and topped with copious pine trees. I can only imagine the size of the pine cones.

Snow begins to fall, coating the mountainsides and rail side scrubs. The wind picks up, creating eddies of snow, simulating tornadoes, swirling, swirling and breaking apart. The Colorado River is frozen here, having transformed from running rapids.

We cross into Iowa and see endless fields of corn and grain, the stalks swaying in the wind. Field after field, neat row after neat row, acres and acres of crops. The phrase “amber waves of grain” repeats in my mind, and I’m grateful we haven’t paved the entire countryside and built cities.

I’m going on another train trip in a couple months. The first things on my packing list: A 200-page sketch pad and 4 rollerball pens, black.

Tell me what writing method you use – Laptop? Typewriter? Pencil and paper? I’m curious if other writers have experimented with different tools. What facilitates your creativity?

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