Friday, January 28, 2011

First Lines

Importance of the First Line in Fiction

Basically, to me the object of a first line, or first page, is to get the story started as soon as possible and in the most interesting way. I’ve heard of a writing professor in the past who wouldn’t let his students write another sentence until they got the first sentence right—what right can’t be easily defined, and how he could justify the tuition spent for those students who never got it right for the semester I have no idea, but the importance of the first sentence can’t be denied.

Of course, the first sentence gives the indication of everything else to come. You can think of it as a reflection or a blueprint of the rest of the story, just as the first page is. There are some characteristics of the first page that cannot be incorporated into the first sentence, of course, but some are automatically included, such as verb tense, point of view, and that slippery indefinable phenomenon, voice. To me, voice in the first line can sell a novel. I believe my first novel was sold on the line “Hank was drunk and he slugged me—it wasn’t the first time—and I picked up the radio and caught him across the forehead with it.” I sent the manuscript out several times before adding this line, but after I added this line, Sonny Mehta at Knopf snapped it up. Personally, I can hear the tone in first clause that sounds like the voice in James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice, which I was modeling the novel on. “They threw me off the hay truck about noon.” “Hank was drunk and he slugged me.” I didn’t consciously mimic Cain, but I was so immersed in him at the time, I think that’s what happened.

You can’t see the plan for the whole short story or novel in the first line, and you’ll need to rewrite it many times, but sometimes a first line comes as a gift. It’s a wonderful thing to be inspired by your own first line. I believe my story “ReBecca” happened this way, when this line came into my head: “As her Siamese twin joined at the skull, I know Becca wants to fuck Remus as soon as she says she’s going to die our hair.” Once this line came into my head—from seeing two-toned hair on conjoined twins on a talk show—I had the sound of the narrator, the conflict, and an unusual and interesting physical detail to work with throughout the story.

As for writing the first sentence, you need to be inspired by your own interests, encounters, or whatever else it does for you, but once you have an idea, I think it’s possible to hone it by keeping a few of these concepts in mind that get worked out further on the first page and beyond.

Using T. Coraghessan Boyle’s sentence from “Descent of Man”:

“I was living with a woman who suddenly began to stink.”

Story of a man whose girlfriend, Jane Good (Goodall?) falls in love with a chimpanzee.

Verb tense—past

Point of View—1st person

Protagonist’s sex—assume male at this point

General age—old enough to be “living with” a woman, sexual situation

Type of character—sympathetic, truthful because plain-spoken

Goal/need—to remedy the situation physically and psychologically


Conflict—relationship problem

Tone—indignant, incredulous, plain, down to earth “stink”

Question—why stink suddenly?

Expectation—something unusual about story: scientific, fantastic?

You might not be conscious of all this, but it has to predict the rest of the story—it’s like poetry, so much in so few words.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

A Fast Start

Since I have nothing profound to say about life on a regular basis, and everyone tells me I must blog, I've decided to create a writing site. With my teaching and writing credentials, I'm sure that I can be of help to new writers in honing their skills. For the first installment, here is my "nutshell" version of how to start the first page of a short story (or a novel), which I call a "Fast Start." Whether you want to write a crime story or a story in any genre, there is no difference in the basic techniques. "Fast Start" means not only do I hope that you will get started writing quickly with these brief guidelines, but that the story will hook the reader immediately. Your first page is the most important page of any story or novel because agents, editors, and people browsing in bookstores (while they still exist) will often only read the first page. So take a few minutes and peruse these notes. Some of this might be familiar to you, but even so, having something explained in a different way can be inspiring. Feel free to ask questions, discuss, or even disagree! In fact, please ask questions, so that I know what to post next week!


In THE ART OF THE NOVEL, 1934, Henry James said that there are no rules for fiction, that the only requirement is that it be interesting. This is true. However, rather than spending years in determining what is, in fact, interesting, a writer can benefit by understanding and practicing a few basics that have been derived through the study of traditional fiction.


The first page is the contract between writer and reader. This is where you create your own rules—whether you realize it or not. If you do not, you are likely to break your rules and cause the reader discomfort because of the inconsistency. On page one—even in sentence one to some extent—the writer creates a pattern he or she must follow to the end of the story or novel. The "DNA” in fiction, as named by James W. Hall, includes the basics necessary to get the story started and indicates the style, tone, and usually the relative proportions of summary, scene, dialogue, and description.


I. Characters—at least two of them:

The story isn't started until there is a conflict to be carried out. A conflict is generally between two people because this is the most interesting. An internal conflict may be present at the same time within the protagonist, but a character entertaining conflicting thoughts alone in a room or on a train is usually not very interesting.

A.. Protagonist with a Need and Goal (usually the narrator):

The reader will be pulling for this character to fulfill his/her deepest psychological desire through the attainment of a concrete goal. He or she need not be all sugar and spice—even murderers can be protagonists—but must be portrayed with specific detail and sensitivity to create interest and sympathy. The character is not usually aware of his or her need, but the writer and the reader should become aware within the first page for best results. The concrete goal may come within the first few pages. The protagonist will grow and change throughout the story, so that the character is different in some way or knows more at the end of the story or novel than at the beginning.

The reader should immediately know the sex, approximate age, and usually, the name of the protagonist. Don't hold back important information that would allow the reader to become emotionally involved.

B. Antagonist—A Character of Opposing Force:

This character and/or allies must give the protagonist a tough "fight." If the opposition is lacking in power, the outcome is too obvious, and the reader loses interest.

II. Atmosphere:

The background enables the reader to visualize the characters concretely. Voices arising out of white space are unsettling to the reader, so usually a sentence or more of atmosphere to set characters on the scene precedes dialogue and action.

A.. Place:

Place may include geographic, exterior, and/or interior setting. How much is needed depends on the story. No "filler" allowed; there is no extra room in a short story, especially on the first page.

B. Time:

Time can refer to year, season, time of day, exact hour and minutes, whatever is needed. Time must be "kept" throughout the story.

III. Verb Tense:

The controlling verb tense must be chosen immediately. Most stories are written in past tense as is logical; however, present tense has become popular and affords a degree of closeness and immediacy that works well under certain conditions. More attention is usually required in order to stay consistent in present tense, because past tense comes to mind more naturally when writing a story.

IV. Point of View:

A consistent point of view should be established in the first few paragraphs and maintained throughout the story. The general types of point of view are first person, third-person-attached or central consciousness, and omniscient. Second person can be used on rare occasions, but often gets tiresome in long works. Briefly, first person is limited to the conscious perceptions and feelings of the "I" narrator, usually the protagonist. Third-person-attached is generally limited to the conscious and unconscious perceptions and feelings of the "he" or "she" protagonist, but may include some omniscience, if it is established early. (You can create your own rules, as long as you stick to them.) A totally omniscient POV from the author, a godlike narrator, or many narrators is generally uncontrolled and unfocused in the hands of a beginner. In a short story, one point of view is highly advised, because there is only one character who develops and changes, and if other characters have points of view, the reader cannot tell who is important. In a novel, there can be several characters who take turns being the point of view character in third person, usually separated in chapters. This is sometimes referred to as omniscient, but it is more accurately called shifting third person. Point of view is usually the most difficult concept for a beginner to master.

V. Dialogue and Scene:

These elements are not always found on the first page, but are highly recommended. Dialogue and scene should contain conflict which builds or reflects the plot in some way, so if good dialogue is included in the first page, the story takes off instantly. Be sure to indent each time you have a new speaker. If a character says something and then performs an action consecutively, the words and actions usually go into one paragraph. Use he said, she said, or I said in most cases if there is any question as to who is speaking. These are called dialogue tags, and they are mostly unnoticed by the reader. Do not draw attention to your tags by varying them. Whispered and shouted are good choices because unlike responded or answered, they show real differences in the manner of speech.

VI. Tone and Style—Elements of Voice

The combination of language, syntax, rhythm, etc. involved in the creation of voice, cannot be defined in this space. Expect to spend years of your life pursuing this knowledge, unless you are one of the lucky people for whom an individual voice comes naturally. In the meantime, suit your language to your character, from the first sentence on. Don't write like an English teacher unless your character is one.