Tuesday, March 15, 2011

TTYU Retro: First Things First

I pulled this post out from the archives (and updated it somewhat) after the question I received from T.S. Bazelli about beginning a story. (T.S., this is about first sentences, not first scenes, but I hope it will address some of your concerns).

How important is the first sentence of your story?

I've seen whole discussions about this on the writing forums I frequent. Some folks will tell you that the first sentence of your story is the most important one of the entire piece, and if you don't get it right you might as well just give up. This doesn't seem a practical approach to my mind, because I don't like any advice that tells me to give up!

I'd like to call the first sentence "a great opportunity."

It's an opportunity to hook your reader, to impress them, to intrigue them and make them curious. But it's not everything. Imagine the disappointment of reading a terrific first sentence and then discovering that the rest of the paragraph is ho-hum. So don't put all your energy just into sentence one; save some for the continuation. I don't think a "just fine" first sentence will be enough to make someone reject your story. On the other hand, if you don't have some great stuff in the first paragraph, you may well lose a very impatient editor. They're zooming, because they have a lot of manuscripts to get through.

So how do I approach a first sentence?

Because I'm a very chronological writer, I need to have a first sentence for a scene before I can start writing it. Sometimes I'll wander around for several days trying out different first sentences in my head until I can find the way in. Ideally, I want any first sentence I write to do three things:

1. Make people curious
2. Demonstrate the psychology of the main character
3. Introduce the main conflict in some form (even obliquely)

I put "make people curious" first, because that's what gets a reader to read your second sentence with gusto, rather than with diminishing momentum. That's your hook. If it makes people curious about the main conflict or main character or the core of the story, so much the better.

I put "demonstrate the psychology of the main character" second because it's something that is very important to me - but I usually write either in first person or in tight third person point of view, and the psychology of the main character is therefore highly relevant. Not to mention the fact that if the main character is an alien, showing something of his/her psychology may help to make the reader curious (see #1 above).

I put "Introduce the main conflict" third because it's something that's really good to do, but can't always be done directly in the first sentence. Even if I don't manage to get it in there, though, I usually try to tap into some part of the main conflict (or the spirit thereof) before the end of the first paragraph. This kind of information does a lot to make the reader curious, but also provides an orientation to give them a sense of where the story might be going - not the plot, but the point, the reason I'm writing this story and they should keep reading it.

Just because I spend days trying to think of a first sentence doesn't mean that the first one I think of - my "entry" to the scene - will end up being my first sentence when I'm through. I often make changes to beginnings, sometimes even trying over and over until I find just the right thing.

Just so I'm not talking about air, I'll give some concrete examples below.

"Stealing eggs is a lot harder than stealing the whole chicken."
- Janice Hardy, The Shifter

I love this sentence. The first thing I think of when I read it is, "Why?" There's our curiosity, right there. It also reveals the psychology of the narrator, because it suggests this person is willing to try to get only the eggs rather than taking the whole chicken - or why would she be mentioning how hard it is? And while this sentence doesn't introduce the main conflict, it does demonstrate a moral sense that is finely tuned between what's right and what's necessary - which is what lies at the core of this character's involvement in the main conflict of the story.

"Lest anyone should suppose that I am a cuckoo's child, got on the wrong side of a blanket by lusty peasant stock and sold into indenture in a shortfallen season, I may say that I am House-born and reared in the Night Court proper, for all the good it did me."
- Jacqueline Carey, Kushiel's Dart

I have an extended analysis of this sentence in an earlier post, here. But speaking in terms of the three items above, I can say this: it makes me curious, by letting me know the main character is in trouble ("for all the good it did me"), and by giving an amazing amount of information about the psychology of the main character (class attitude, social position, etc.). The entire book maintains the same intense focus on the character of Ph├Ędre - she is the magnetic core of the story, so the sentence is certainly consistent with what follows.

"I hereby declare the end of Dana Turner."
- Juliette Wade, Through This Gate

Here's one I wrote myself, so I'll say off the bat that I've tried to have this sentence do all three things I mentioned. I thought I'd share some of the process behind this one, though - I came up with it pretty early in the writing process, maybe even as early as the first draft. However, for a long time I didn't know how to follow it. I worked and reworked the scene that followed this sentence, and even considered changing it, but in the end decided it was the right first sentence for my book, so the rest of the scene had better fit with it, and that was that. I worked until I managed to get it to fit.

Finally I thought I'd share a revision example. Here was the sentence that was my "entry" to the story, "At Cross Purposes":

"Piloting the shuttle between maintenance sites is my reward, the guys tell me - to make up for the five years it took Terrafirm, Inc. to grant my security clearance."

I wrote it, and it got me in, but I wasn't happy with it. Yes, you might be curious about why she didn't get her security clearance for so long, and yes, the sentence does show her attitude, but it doesn't really give you any hints as to where the story is going. Maybe something to do with security clearances? Certainly security clearances are relevant, but they aren't the point of the story. So I went back in and rewrote it - didn't edit it, but got rid of it and started in a completely different way. The physical details of location etc. for the opening scene remained the same, but the second draft of the opening sentence was:

"Kelly's on the comm and she's playing with my mind, trying to tell me she sees a cloud."

Psychology/attitude, check. Curiosity, well, it has to do with why someone who sees a cloud would be suspected of playing with anyone's mind. It wasn't really good enough, though, and didn't stand up for beta readers because of the problems I discussed in my last post - it tried to hop into the main conflict to early, without giving readers sufficient grounding (where is this person? What is she doing?). So I hopped back a bit, and the first sentence of the final draft was this:

"One more sector done; we shuck off our helmets with a groan and strap into the shuttle, guys in back and me in the pilot's seat."

This one tells us she's in the middle of an exhausting activity, she's a pilot, and she's about to take off in a shuttle - all of which are critical forms of grounding for what happens next. The hook/curiosity factor is a bit less, but we should at least wonder what she's up to in her work, and her work is directly related to where the story goes overall.

So at the end of this whole discussion I hope I've given you something to think about, and something to aim for - but I also hope that I've been clear about the difference between an entry sentence (first sentence for the first draft), and a first sentence (first sentence for the final draft). It's always cool and exciting when you can find a first sentence that really hooks a reader. Just don't be afraid to take as many drafts as you need in order to get there.


  1. I had one first sentence bing me upside the head, then finally got three to follow it, but heaven help me following up those!

    "It is said that the gods are dead."

    Usually, I start with the dialogue (and it's got to do all those things you listed above). This is in truth the only first line that grabbed me by the throat. Now, if I could just turn it into a proper scene, I think I'd be happy.

  2. Megs, I know how you feel. Some zingy lines have an automatic link forward into more material, and others are a dead stop (like one of mine above). Either you want that kind of break before the reader moves on (which I did in the above case) or you don't, in which case you change the sentence!