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For Authors: August 26, 2020 Issue [#10335]

 This week: First Words
  Edited by: Max Griffin 🏳️‍🌈
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Table of Contents

1. About this Newsletter
2. A Word from our Sponsor
3. Letter from the Editor
4. Editor's Picks
5. A Word from Writing.Com
6. Ask & Answer
7. Removal instructions

About This Newsletter

We all have reasons to come to a place like Writing.Com. For me, it's always been you, the members. My life is richer for reading your stories. My writing is better for receiving your wisdom. Writing this column can't repay the debt I owe, but it's my way saying "Thank you," by sharing some of what I've learned. I hope you enjoy what I've got to offer.

Word from our sponsor

Letter from the editor

Getting published sometimes feels like trying to puzzle out a who-done-it. The whole process is mysterious. You sweat blood writing a story. You send it off. Months later, the editor responds. Sometimes it's a "yes," sometimes a "no." But you rarely learn what informed the decision.

One claim I've heard is that editors make the initial decision on whether or not to even read your story based on your first sentence. That's it. Just the first sentence. I don't know if that's true or not, but I've read a lot of stories here on WDC, and I can generally tell whether I'm going to like the story or not based on the opening paragraph. I'm currently editing an anthology, and I'm reading all the submissions, but mostly I know whether or not the story is suitable based on the first paragraph, and sometimes the first sentence.

The point is that those first words matter. Knowing why they matter and how to make them more effective needs to be part of every author's toolkit.

One way to think of telling a story–a modern way–is that it is a guided dream in which the author leads the readers through the events. In doing this, the author needs to engage the readers as active participants in the story, so that they become the author’s partner in imagining the fictional world. Elements of craft that engage the readers and immerse them in the story enhance this fictive dream. On the other hand, authors should avoid things that interrupt the dream and pull readers out of the story. John Gardner in his books on the craft of writing was one of the most articulate champions of this idea.

If you want to construct a fictional dream, you need to draw the reader into the story and hence into a dream-like state. You want to avoid things that pull the reader out of that state. While the readers are inside the story, you do not want them thinking–you want them believing, imagining, and feeling.

It’s not that you don’t want your readers to ever think–surely every author has something they want their readers take away from their story, even if it's just a good laugh. However, you don’t want readers puzzling out the details of the fictional world while they are reading the story. Later, as they reflect on the meaning of tale, that’s when you want them thinking.

So, the basic idea is to draw the readers into a fictional dream. The readers become the author’s active partners in imagining the fictional world. They reside in a state of suspended disbelief. In crafting the opening of any fictional work, it’s the author’s primary task to launch this dream. Each change in scene runs the risk of disrupting the dream, and so the author must use all the tools of his or her craft to keep the dream-state alive and to lure the reader into the new setting.

Here are three simple guidelines.

1 Launch the scene with action, usually by having your point-of-view character doing something. The old saw, “start in media res,” in the middle of things, is still good advice.aunch the scene with action, usually by having your point-of-view character doing something. The old saw, “start in media res,” in the middle of things, is still good advice.

2 The action should orient the readers. The reader needs to know who the point-of-view character is, where that person is, what they are doing. You might also want to include why they are doing it. If the scene is embedded in a bigger story, the readers also need to know when it’s taking place relative to the earlier scenes.

3 At the very start of a scene, put the readers inside the head of the point-of-view character.

These are simple ideas, but difficult to carry out in practice. It’s amazing to me how many stories I read where the authors have omitted all the informational tasks listed in the second guideline. The third step, putting the reader inside the point-of-view character’s head, is even more challenging.
Let’s look at an example, starting with a basic opening and then tweaking it.

It was dinnertime when John walked into his brother Tom’s hospital room. He felt bad seeing Tom’s injuries and wished he’d been more careful when planning their hunting trip.

These two opening sentences accomplish the basics of orienting the reader:

1 We know who point-of-view character is: John. We’ve established we’re in his head because we know he’s “feeling bad.”
2 We know where he’s at–in a hospital.
3 We know what he’s doing and why he’s there–visiting his brother.
4 We know when the scene takes place–dinnertime.

Thus, this opening does the basic job of orienting the readers. Note you have to name John to answer the “who” question. The sooner you name him, the better, as this helps readers to identify with him.

Do not start by writing, “It was dinnertime when he walked into the room.” The pronoun “he” has no antecedent and makes the reader stop and think about who walked in. Even if the point-of-view doesn’t change between scenes, a new scene marks a break in the fictional dream. Reinforcing that we’re still in John’s head helps maintain continuity of the dream-state.

Do not start with dialogue. A disembodied voice will almost surely put the reader outside the story looking in, hearing the words on their own instead of through the point-of-view character’s ears. Establish the point-of-view first, before anyone speaks. Further, opening with dialogue will lead the reader to think about who is speaking and where they are. You don’t want them thinking–at least, not yet!

The worst thing about the above opening is that it does almost nothing to put the reader inside John’s head. Doing that takes thought and craft. The author needs to be inside John’s head, imagining entering the room, imagining the sensations and emotions that pass across his psyche as this scene opens.

Here's an opening that includes the same information as the info-dump opening above, but uses John's point-of-view as the vehicle.

John hesitated in the hall for a tremulous breath, and his nose tingled with astringent hospital scents. He stepped into his brother Tom’s room where a nurse’s aide huddled beside the bed, spooning a liquid dinner of steaming soup into Tom’s waiting lips. Casts immobilized his brother’s limbs, making John’s chin quiver. He blinked back tears while guilt clenched at his stomach and tightened his throat. Memories of his part in yesterday’s hunting accident came flooding back.

This opening is by no means perfect. Instead, it’s constructed to make some specific points about craft. It starts with John doing something personal–hesitating for a “tremulous” breath. We learn that he’s in a hospital when his nose “tingles” in response to the “astringent” hospital scents, an internal sensation that reinforces we're in his head. All of this combines to make this bit of information more intimate and immediate, since it’s about what John smells rather than just telling the reader that he’s in a hospital. In the next two sentences, we learn about Tom’s injuries in specific ways: he can’t feed himself, he’s on a liquid diet, and his arms are immobilized in casts. We also learn that he’s getting dinner, which answers the “when” question. Finally, we learn that John “feels bad” through descriptions of his physical responses to seeing his brother: he blinks back tears, his stomach clenches, and his throat tightens. These are all visceral, inner sensations that again put the readers into John’s head and establish him as the point-of-view character. Note also the cause-and-effect sequence: John sees the injuries first, and then his chin quivers, etc. Keeping this sequence in place helps to propel the story and keep readers in the here-and-now of unfolding events.

It takes approximately twice as many words to establish the point of view–the first opening is 29 words and the second is 76 words. But notice that the second does a much better job of drawing the reader into John’s head and hence into the scene and the story.

We all have favorite openings. Many of mine don't use these exact guidelines, but follow them in spirit. Raymond Chandler, for example, wrote exquisite prose describing the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles. They perfectly launched his stories by drawing the reader in, much in the same way that one can't look away from a catastrophe in progress. His distinctive, poetic voice--something I discussed in an earlier newsletter, "For Authors Newsletter (April 8, 2020)--launches the fictional dream. Lacking his genius, I use guidelines.

For an example from literature, consider the opening to Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka.

One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin. He lay on his armour-like back, and if he lifted his head a little he could see his brown belly, slightly domed and divided by arches into stiff sections. The bedding was hardly able to cover it and seemed ready to slide off any moment. His many legs, pitifully thin compared with the size of the rest of him, waved about helplessly as he looked.

If you consistently practice these three rules, you’ll have stronger stories that do a better job of drawing readers into your fictional world. These rules are guidelines, so don’t follow them, lemming-like, off a cliff. They also aren’t all-inclusive. All characters should have goals. The goals should matter –the stakes–and something should stand in the way of achieving the goals–the obstacles. Goals, stakes, and obstacles are also useful things to include in opening paragraphs. The second opening above hints that John's goal might involve dealing with his guilt over the accident, for example.

Whatever you do, that first paragraph has to launch the fictional dream. If you start the reader imagining your fictional world along with you, you've gone a long ways in writng an engaging opening. The readers own the story, since you've made them your partners in imagining it. The guidelines provide the most critical tools for doing that.

Editor's Picks

"Death And Hope In The Time Of Covid-19"   by willy
"Cookout"   by Robert Waltz
"And Then Again..."   by Fynanew
"Invalid Item"   by A Guest Visitor
"Invalid Item"   by A Guest Visitor
"Thick Runs the Blood Over Water"   by Dalimer Corwyn
"Invalid Item"   by A Guest Visitor
"Invalid Item"   by A Guest Visitor
"The Pianist"   by Quick-Quill
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