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Weldon Writes ... Almost a Blog

A Powerful First Line is Essential!

Many editors will tell you that, when plowing through a slush pile of freelance submissions, they often never get past the first sentence of a story, much less the first paragraph. Writers may think this unfair, but an editor's instinct about a story is usually dead on -- if the first few lines of a story don't snare your attention, you're not likely to read further.

 

Compelling first lines are critical.

 

Consider the following examples of first lines from best-selling authors.

 

  • Everything, Sam Peebles decided later, was the fault of the god-damned acrobat. If the acrobat hadn't gotten drunk at exactly the wrong time, Sam never would have ended up in such trouble. ("The Library Policeman" by Stephen King)
     
  • Red Tongue Jurgis (we called him that because he ate red-hots all the time) stood under my window one cold October morning and yelled at the metal weathercock on top of our house. ("The Last Circus" by Ray Bradbury)
     
  • It was hell's season, and the air smelled of burning children. ("Gone South" by Robert McCammon)
     
  • On the night after the day she had stained the louvered window shutters of her new apartment on East 52nd Street, Beth saw a woman slowly and hideously knifed to death in the courtyard of her building. ("The Whimper of Whipped Dogs" by Harlan Ellison)
     
  • Barberio felt fine, despite the bullet. ("Son of Celluloid" by Clive Barker)

 

Well-written first lines engage the inquisitive human brain, pulling us into a story by appealing to our natural curiosity, appealing to our emotions, or ideally both. And very often brevity enhances those appeals. (Barker's six-word sentence, for example, begs many questions that urge you to read more.) First lines should raise questions in our minds, with the promise that the answers will be divulged if we continue reading the story. First lines should jumpstart the reader's imagination. The excellent writer understands the psychology of the reader and uses this knowledge to manipulate, entertain, and even educate the reader -- right out of the gate.

 

Consider the first sentence from Harlan Ellison's "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs." Ellison was inspired to write this short story after the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964; Genovese was stabbed repeatedly near her apartment in New York City, and the murder was witnessed by 38 of her neighbors who did not interfere with the killer, despite the woman's screams for help. Ellison starts the story with mention of a mundane chore (painting louvered window shutters), then counterpoints this with a knifing in Beth's courtyard. Subtle psychology going on here. In one sentence, Ellison has us hooked. What did Beth do? What happened next? Who was the slain woman? The murderer? How can you not read more?

 

If you are a fiction writer, spend a good deal of time tailoring the first sentence or two of your stories. Consider the questions you want in your reader's mind as the story begins, then write a lead that plants those questions -- and drive them to read more.

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Of Characters and Cobbler's Elves

If you know any writers, you’ve probably heard something like the following: “I started to write a scene in my novel, pretty much following my outline. But then one of the characters went into a totally different direction. Before long, the characters ending up writing the scene for me, in a way I never expected. And it’s better because of it!”

Non-writers scratch their heads at this. Is this some form of magic? Is there really a muse that usurps the writer’s brain and writes the story? Is this something like the cobbler’s elves?

I was just working on a chapter in my police procedural novel, tentatively titled Harvester of Sorrow. In the chapter, the body of a child is discovered in a remote area of a county park, and the murder may be related to similar murders in a nearby city. This brings up a case of jurisdiction (county vs. city police departments) that I hadn’t considered earlier, and this required that I create a new character, a detective from the county PD. The character was originally only a walk-on, but I quickly realized he was a more significant character, and he changed the chapter as I wrote it. He will appear in subsequent chapters.

Magic??

The January 2011 issue of Writer’s Digest includes an interview with Harlan Coben, best-selling author of numerous thrillers such as Tell No One, Just One Look, Long Lost, Hold Tight, and Caught. During the interview, WD asked, “So do your characters ever surprise you—do they become real to you in that way?” He answered, “Oh, they surprise me all the time. … I don’t like it when people make it seem more magical. It’s not. It’s work. It can be wonderful, and it can be thrilling, but it’s not really magical.”


When I first read this, I honed in on Coben’s claim, “It’s work.” I know what he means. Characters may seem to take on lives of their own, but only after the writer has given great thought to those characters, has worked with them in the story, has fully developed them. Maybe, as a writer, you’ve learned something more about the character as a scene progresses, and the character moves into that new area as your broaden that character’s role in the story. Magic? I don’t think so. It comes from hard work, from the writer being intimate with the characters he/she has created.

Maybe, as the characters have matured in your mind, they no longer fit the outline you originally devised, simply because it forces them to act out of character. This may be a surprise, that a character may go through door B instead of door A as you originally envisioned. But, it’s really no surprise at all—you’re subliminal thoughts were headed in that direction as the character was being developed. No magic. Just hard work.

When characters take over a story, it’s almost always a good and desired turn of events. As a writer, go with the flow. Think of it as a reward for the work you’ve already put into your work-in-progress!
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