Tuesday, November 5, 2013

TTYU Retro: The First/Last sentence experiment

Have you ever done this?

Take your novel manuscript, or story manuscript if it contains multiple scenes. Take out all the first and last sentences, and put them in a separate file, in order. Then see what the story looks like. (You can actually do only first sentences, or only last sentences, but each of those will give you a very different result.)

The result won't look like a story, but you will be able to tell some things about how the story is progressing. I do this usually when I'm in the revision stage of a story, and and it can be an interesting measure of how much drive you're getting in your scene openers and cliffhangers, and whether there appears to be any link between them. To give you a sense of what a story might look like in this form, I'll give you the first and last sentences of each scene in "The Liars," which appeared in Analog this year:

1 (first). If it was possible to make a security area "adorable," Poik-Paradise had done it.
1 (last). By the time you've been here a couple days, either you won't notice it any more, or it'll be driving you crazy.

2 (first). The song was driving him crazy.
2 (last). When you hear it, you will understand.

3 (first). "Little Qing," Adrian asked, "you don't want to understand?"
3 (last). With a wordless sound of fear, Óp squirmed free of his grip and vanished.

4 (first). It was a long climb down, followed by an additional hike to the Tauth party, so Adrian uplinked to the orbiter while he walked.
4 (last. She might know he's suffering, might know the Paradise Company is hiding him to preserve its reputation, and might not give a damn."

5 (first). The communicator chimed.
5 (last). The Liar wrenched free of his captors, seized the broken champagne glass off the table, and stabbed it into his own throat.

6 (first). "Oh, God!" Adrian cried.
6 (last). "Yes, Óp, I think we do."

One thing I notice when I look at this is that I often try to link the first sentence of a scene with the last sentence of the previous one. Writing them out like this lets me test whether each opening sentence of the scene gets me curious to read the scene itself. It also helps me consider the kind of resonance I'm getting from each final sentence (by which I mean the feeling which continues on into the pause between scenes). It also helps me to tell where the largest amount of change is happening in the story, because there will be less of a connection between the sentences when a lot of change has happened and new information has been introduced.

Here is the same thing, done with the first six chapters of the novel I'm agent-hunting for right now.

1 (first). Tagaret believed in music the same way he believed in the sky.
1. (last). After five years away in Selimna, Mother would finally be coming home.

2 (first). The Speaker's death last night, like the tumble of a stone from the roof of some forsaken cavern, had the entire Imbati Service Academy holding its breath, listening for worse.
2 (last). "This much I can promise: if she accepts you, she will protect you."

3 (first). The scariest part of Tagaret's health check had been his examiner: the Health Master of the Imbati Academy, a woman built like a cave-cat, with whisper-gentle fingers and eyes like iron under her bodyguard's tattoo.
3 (last). Mechanically, Tagaret walked Reyn to the door, then returned to his room and locked himself in.

4 (first). Nekantor stared at the locked door for a long time.
4 (last). When Benél understood, he was powerful.

5 (first). Not until the lock clicked did it really hit him.
5 (last). "It's a surprise."

6 (first). Grobal Tagaret was not the person he'd wanted to see.
6 (last). Thank all the gods he had been born Imbati.

This one is less tight-sounding because the scope of the story is much larger, and there are three point of view characters. However, I can still check each first and last sentence for drive and resonance, and I can also notice other things, such as the fact that I've put a lot of importance on the locking of Tagaret's door. I might be inclined to change this if it were less important to the story, but as it is, I'm keeping it because it has an important role.

I encourage you to try this with your manuscripts and see what you can learn!



  1. That's an interesting technique. I've never heard of it before. Is this something you invented?

  2. R.E., Thanks for your interest. I came up with it myself, for myself, but I wouldn't guarantee that nobody has ever come up with it before!

  3. Juliette, a really good exercise. I learned about first/last sentence several decades ago in an English class--journalism, actually. Most people don't know this (or remember). Thanks for the educational post.

    1. mentalgeysers, thanks for mentioning this. I was sure it had been done before!

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