Thursday, February 5, 2009

The First Words! by DL Larson

If you've ever strolled down a tourist area, particularly in a foreign country, you've probably encountered venders selling their wares. Some smile and welcome you closer, others shove their merchandise in your face. They are all after one thing ~ a sale. We writers are not so different. We simply use different tactics. Are we more subtle? Hmmm, hard to say, but our future lies in getting the buyers attention today. We sweet talk with well placed words, we shock with rough dialogue, we lure readers into our story with intrigue and promises of a good time. And we have about twenty seconds to capture said reader to delve a little deeper, take in another sentence of the elixir we've created. Hopefully they will want more.

What am I talking about? None other than the opening sentence in a novel. If you have spent countless hours on your opening page, you are in good company. Every word has to sizzle, intrigue and motivate the reader to move further down the page. The task is daunting and exhausting, and oh, so fulfilling when it actually works.

If you're searching to spiff up your opening, here are a few options that may set you on the road to the attention grabber you want. Mix and match to build your opening:
- Get to the point
- use shock or awe
- lead into something
- have attitude, good or bad
- be controversial

The point is to plop your reader right down into the middle of things, whether it was a dark and stormy night, or you startle your reader by using second person and say, "call me Ishmael," the words need to convey intrigue to the reader.
Without some style or type of intrigue, the reader won't be pulled into the next sentence. Every writer wants the reader to ask a few questions on their own. Who is this? What's going on? Why is this happening? If the writer has done a good job, the reader will want to know more and the eyes will scan the next sentence.

Louisa May Alcott has the perfect second sentence in Little Women, for me anyway. Jo has just confessed Christmas won't be Christmas without presents, but Meg pulls me into the story with her simple line, "It's so dreadful being poor!" As a reader I want to know why there will be no presents and how did they end up so poor? I'm already invested in this little scene. I already care and want to know more.

Ernest Hemingway, who I'm not overly fond of, still captured my attention with, He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. Hemingway conveys the determination of his character the old man, the stubbornness and I wonder if I would be so determined in his place, and I read more of The Old Man and the Sea.

Jane Austin used naivite of her character in Pride and Prejudice. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. I smile every time I read that line, and I'm soon reading more.

Shakespeare begins his prologue in Romeo and Juliet by setting the scene and then declaring horror about to unfold. Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona, where we lay our scene, from ancient grudge break to new mutiny, where civil blood makes civil hands unclean. Talk about setting the reader down in the middle of things! I know the story and still want to read on to see what happens next.

Great opening sentences take work! The point is to not settle for mediocrity. When I'm teaching chess to my students, I remind them constantly to look for a good move, then find a better one. The same applies for opening sentences. Find one you can be happy with in order to move on and finish your chapter. Then later, give your full attention to creating a platform of words that beckons the reader to step a little closer, sink deeper into the action unfolding.

What is one of your favorite opening sentence(s)? It can be your own or another authors!

I'll share with you my work in progress: (I'm still tweaking it)
Ruf hated sitting in church, hated it even more today, 'cause all he could do was stare.

Now it's your turn to share your thougts on opening sentences with us! What words have you used to pull the reader in?

Til next time ~

DL Larson


Gayle Carline said...

My favorte opening sentence of all time is from Steinbeck's Cannery Row: "Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream."

As for myself, the first lines of my book (Freezer Burn, to be published this year) are: "Such exquisite hands. What a pity to waste them."

Not nearly the literary tome of Mr. Steinbeck, but I do hope people will want to read more.

G. Carline

Deb Larson said...

What intrigue! I'm wondering already what it means! Good luck and thanks for sharing.