Friday, November 11, 2011

Those Essential First Lines

Recently I had the privilege of sitting in an excellent workshop at the Breathe Conference in Grand Rapids Michigan where Cynthia Beach, author and professor at Cornerstone University, gave some practical tips on “Creating the Best First Line.”

Here are four of her suggestions:

1) Attend to Grammar. Using subject-verb-direct object structure creates a fast pace and expectations, whereas an introductory phrase-main subject structure sets the tone for a slower pace. Use of the words were, was, and are set the tone for boredom. You don’t want that.

2) Attend to Length. An opening sentence of fewer than 17 words sets a face pace, research shows. Anything longer than that will be processed by the brain as more complex or difficult. Of course a literary or thought-provoking work doesn’t usually introduce itself with mini-sentences, right?

3) Attend to Specifics. The more specific the words you use, the more likely they will create in the reader’s mind a mental image with impact. You want impact, don’t you?

4) Attend to Theme. Many very famous books capture their themes in their first sentences, such as Out of Africa: “I had a farm in Africa. . .” We understand the weight of the past tense. We feel the exotic story coming.

Take the first line of your WIP. Put it through the Beach grinder. What do you end up with? (And we've invited Professor Beach to respond to you, here on the blog. You'll love her!)

27 comments:

Wendy Paine Miller said...

I'm challenged on the specifics one every single time I edit (and I love it).
~ Wendy

Cynthia Ruchti said...

Beachify it!:

"The hand on her cheek weighed no more than a birthmark."

My goal was to tell a lot in a few words, set the tone for the novel, intrigue the reader, and express that the story must be some combination of joy and pain.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

These are great tips. I wish that I could have gone to ALL of the sessions at Breathe (there were just too many really great options). Thank you for sharing what you learned.

I don't have a first line for my WIP yet. Still researching. Goodness, I'm not even decided on the POV yet. But I will be sure to bookmark this page when I get to that point!

Cynthia Beach said...

Cynthia, this is Cynthia Beach, whom Latayne mentioned, and I say, "Lovely first line!"

Latayne invited me to visit her blog and check in with comments. I'll continue to do so through the day.

Bonnie Grove said...

Latayne (and Cynthia), this is vastly more useful than the usual "hook" advice.

Writers are often told to hook the reader with the first line, so they go to insane lengths to appear interesting/terrifying/moody/you-name-it, while missing the point that the opening line is the invitation for the reader to be able to immediately identify what sort of book this will be and what sort of voice will be telling it.

For the most part, readers are looking for a friend to tell them the story (even a thriller or horror).

Under the "attend to the specifics" point, I'm reminded that strong nouns are every bit as important as strong verbs. The best metaphors turn on strong nouns.

Marcia said...

LaTayne and/or Cynthia, could you give an example or two of "using subject-verb-direct object structure" and "phrase-main subject structure"? This would clarify things for me. Thanks!

Great suggestions. I'm having to re-work my first line. It's too long, to begin with.

Also, I was wondering, would this advice stand up well for not only the first line, but for most other sentences in our novels? Why or why not?

Appreciate both of you taking the time to give us some free-of-charge teaching! You're very generous.

Marcia said...

Bonnie, that resonates with me: "Most people are just looking for a friend to tell them a story."

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Yes, Bonnie! Down with the hook! It's too much pressure. I'd much rather invite the reader than grab them and force them into my story!

Lori Benton said...

So I'm going now to look at my current first line for the umpteenth time. Thanks for the fresh way of looking at the process, Latayne.

Bonnie, this is great: For the most part, readers are looking for a friend to tell them the story.

Ellen Staley said...

Unfortunately, I haven't made much in the way of changes to the opening line of my wip. I welcome Beachifying:

The handwritten missive quivered with his hand as he read, ‘My Precious One.’

Great ideas as always.

Ellen

Megan Sayer said...

"The year I turned 11 I decided I needed a father, although I really didn't know what to do with the one I already had."

...?

Cynthia Beach said...

Marcia~
Here's an example of a subject-verb-object construction:
Ken Naylor slowed the Lumina.

Now here's a sentence that starts with an introductory element (can be a phrase or clause):
Avoiding the pothole, Ken Naylor slowed the Lumina.
You can sense the difference in pace. The longer it takes your reader to hit the main subject/verb, the slower the pace. That said, you may want to slow the pace, depending on your goals and genre.

Marcia, you also asked about whether you should alter your other sentences accordingly. No. Remember variety is the spice of life. Try to offer your reader a variety in sentence contstruction and length.
Good luck!

Cynthia Beach said...

Ellen~

I liked your "Beachifying" coined phrase. Made my day! Should I understand you'd like my two cents on your opening line? Here goes!

The handwritten missive quivered with his hand as he read, ‘My Precious One.’

I liked your verb "quiver": action and emotion. I'd encourage you to brainstorm five different ways to say that first line and see what you get.
"Handwritten missive" has a lot of syllables. If this is literary fiction, "missive" may work. But if it's genre, I'd find a more common word.
Let me know if you try the brainstorm. The key here: Play with it.

Cynthia Beach said...

Megan~

Here's some feedback to your opening line:
"The year I turned 11 I decided I needed a father, although I really didn't know what to do with the one I already had."

Fun. It sets up a dilemma--and tells the character's age. Good. How can you make it more concise, I wonder.
Experiment. Again, just see how many words you can whittle out. "The year I turned 11" could be shortened. But would you lose something?
The following phrase is quite long. Would breaking it into two sentences--or using a dash add something? Give it a try. If you want, please show us what happens.

Susan Barclay said...

Looking forward to the Beachification of my first line:

Buchanan, John Mason. The name leapt out at me as if there were no others on the page.

Thanks, Cynthia!

Megan Sayer said...

Cynthia thank you so much for taking the time to offer criticism here - I feel very blessed.

Here's my original sentence again:
"The year I turned 11 I decided I needed a father, although I really didn't know what to do with the one I already had."

I tried shortening the first part...When I turned 11…At age 11…
In my 11th year…but none seemed to have the right cadence for an introductory sentence.
Here's what I ended up with:

The year I turned 11 I decided I needed a father. Trouble was I didn’t know what to do with the one I already had.

Same word count, but split into two, and, i think, simpler to read.

Cynthia Beach said...

Megan~
Nice revision. Yes, I agree. There's something about "The year I turned 11." Cadence--yes! That's it. And then to split it into two does make it easier to read and creates a faster pace. Good job!

Cynthia Beach said...

Susan~

Your opening line:
Buchanan, John Mason. The name leapt out at me as if there were no others on the page.

Immediate. I like your idea is using an effective fragment. It has punch.

For the full sentence, I'd again encourage you to do what I've suggested before: experiment. Play with it. How many different ways can you say this? See what you find.

I suggest this, not because it's broken or weak, but just to see. The verb "leapt" is powerful.

Good luck!

Marcia said...

Original opening line:
“When I opened my eyes that April morning--my 25th birthday--I couldn't shake the premonition that something was about to go wrong.”

Problems: Too long. Have 2 action verbs “opened” and “shake”, but also a “was.” Have nothing about the theme of the novel.

Rewrite:
“Shameful memories struggled to surface as I opened my eyes early that April morning--my 25th birthday.”

Grammar-- action verbs “struggled” and “opened”
Length – 17 words.
Specifics – early morning, April, 25th birthday
Theme-- heroine struggling to overcome the shame of her past

problem: takes too long to hit the main subject and verb; “shameful memories” too general and not specific enough. Something shorter would quicken the pace.

Second Rewrite:

I opened my eyes on my 25th birthday wondering how it had come to be that my parents had been martyred on that day two decades before.

Nah. (27 words).

I jolted awake too early that April morning. The rat-a-tat-tat of a machine gun echoed through my dream. Two decades ago, at my 5th birthday party, they had tried to kill us all.

Or maybe...

I jolted awake, the rat-a-tat-tat of a machine gun rocketing me from my dream. Death. Two decades ago, on my fifth birthday. But I was still alive.

Or... same as above but leave off that last sentence?


Am I getting better or worse? I worry I'm coming across as too overly-dramatic. :-) Any pointers? Should I keep trying?

Thanks so much for this little mini-workshop! It's almost too good to be true.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

Clear, warm music of lazy water drops finding home in a calm pool sang to accompany Leoshine’s bath.

This is the opening to the prologue. Yes, I know it is dangerous to have a prologue but I want the reader to be very comfortable before they read this:

Finger tips, sharp, bit into Leoshine’s soft upper arms and ribs.

Which is the real opening to the story.

Am I too late for a Beauchification?

Cynthia Beach said...

Marcia~
Way to go! The point is to play, to experiment. If you start to feel confused, then just take a cool down.

Here's some feedback:
"I jolted awake too early that April morning. The rat-a-tat-tat of a machine gun echoed through my dream. Two decades ago, at my 5th birthday party, they had tried to kill us all."

I had a big "wow" with that last sentence--keeping the "they" a mystery can work. I also liked "rat-a-tat-etc." as it gives sound. "Jolted awake"--yes. Something's up.

Here's your next one:

"I jolted awake, the rat-a-tat-tat of a machine gun rocketing me from my dream. Death. Two decades ago, on my fifth birthday. But I was still alive."

I really like the first sentence. You fold a lot into it. Maybe add a verb to pull "Death" into a sentence with "two decades ago."

Also I liked this: "Shameful memories struggled to surface as I opened my eyes early that April morning--my 25th birthday.”

Again this establishes age and theme. Hmmm!

You did very well in trying. Something we're not always good at.

Cynthia Beach said...

Henrietta~
Good for you to post your sentences. Here's some feedback:

"Clear, warm music of lazy water drops finding home in a calm pool sang to accompany Leoshine’s bath."

Your goal is to create ambience, right? So a long sentence may work for you. However, this sentence gave me an uncomfortable feeling of being suspened because 13 words separate the subject from the verb "sang." Try shortening it.
Also by saying that water "sang" you're using personification. I'd suggest moving away from that and concentrating on setting the scene as "real."

Your first chapter line: "Finger tips, sharp, bit into Leoshine’s soft upper arms and ribs."

Putting the word "sharp" after finger tips slows the sentence. Have you tried tucking it before "finger"? When you said that Leoshine's upper arms are soft, I pictured an older woman.

This first sentence also caught my attention: conflict!

Thanks for putting your work out there!

Cynthia Beach said...

Latayne and company~

Many thanks for asking me to visit this blog. I thoroughly enjoyed my visit!

Again I'm proud of those who posted first lines. We need feedback through writing groups, freelance editors or other means. Even though I'm a writing prof., I hired an editor (Hugh Cook) for my novel manuscript, *The Seduction of Pastor Goodman.* Am I ever glad that I did. Cook encouraged me and showed me my bad habits. This recent experience reminded me how much I need feedback.

Blessings to you all and keep writing.

Marcia said...

Latayne, what a wonderful idea to have Cynthia Beach do a little mini-workshop. Thank you so much! I'm glad I took advantage of the opportunity to ask some dumb questions and learn some valuable lessons. Getting a stronger opening line under my belt helps me feel more confident in pursuing my goal.

Ellen Staley said...

Thank you so much Cynthia for your review of and suggestions for my first line.
Such a great learning tool viewing the alternative first lines from each who participated.

Latayne C Scott said...

Cynthia, you did a masterful job of responding to everyone's efforts. I so much appreciate all you did!

NovelMatters readers -- I think we should have her back again!

Susan Barclay said...

Thanks for the positive feedback, Cynthia - I'll do some more experimenting and see what I come up with. Maybe I'll run a few options by my critique group as well, and see what they think.

I agree with Latayne - Novel Matters needs to have Cynthia back again sometime!