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Posts Tagged ‘first-person opening’

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” ~Charles Dickens’ opening for A Tale Of Two Cities.

This is one of the most repeated first sentences ever. And it is not even the whole sentence. In an epic run-on Dickens adds: “it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”

What Dickens wants us to see and feel and learn and anticipate, we see and feel and learn and anticipate. So profound is his first sentence that even those who have not read the book can quote you those first few words. We authors can learn much from Dickens. We can also take away a lesson from observing countless readers who remember only the first portion of his novel: brevity is a virtue.

As you struggle to write your own first sentence be aware that there are many ways to give the director’s call (mentioned in my last post) and capture the reader’s heart and soul. There is no one, better way.

The dramatic opening. This often utilizes nature to mimic the stormy or sweet or tense tone readers will uncover in the story.

“Thunder rippled across the frozen lake.” ~Jessie Mae Hodsdon’s opening for Issym.

The unassuming opening. It takes a soft approach, that makes the reader lean into the very ordinary nature of the words.

“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” ~Charlotte Bronte’s opening for Jane Eyre. This mild opening for a very dramatic novel causes the reader to wonder, “What was there a possibility of?” And so the bond between author and reader is secured. Only the book can answer the question the reader has now latched onto.

“They moved with joint precision.” ~Jessie Mae Hodsdon’s opening for Asandra. Again, there is something quite ordinary about movement, but it also raises questions like “Why are they precise?” “What makes them move jointly?” “Where are they going?”

The evident opening. There are no hidden questions, no lost meaning, no parallel imagery. This opening, as its name suggests, is evident.

“The family of Dashwood had been long settled in Sussex.” ~Jane Austen’s opening for Sense and Sensibility.

“One strike of his sword after another, the youthful warrior barreled through his enemies.” ~Jessie Mae Hodsdon’s opening for Xsardis.

We know we are going to deal with the traditional Dashwoods in Sense and Sensibility and that we shall see a medieval adventure take place in my own Xsardis. With unmistakable clarity, there is also a draw. We cut through all the fancy words and jump (in Austen’s work) to a traditional estate and (in my own novel) to a medieval battlefield. As a director’s call this leaves no room for losing a reader, as they are immediately forced onto stage. It might, however, jar them.

The location opening. It is possible to arouse the reader’s curiosity based on opening location alone. It is a risky move. If the reader finds the place uninteresting he will close the book, but, if he longs to know more or has a traveler’s heart, this opening can be highly persuasive. Most readers long to go somewhere. That is why they read.

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” ~J.R.R. Tolkien’s opening for The Hobbit.

“Ho Chi Minh City in the summer.” ~ Eoin Colfer’s opening for Artemis Fowl.

The image of a creature living in a hole is captivating. It begs questions like “What kind of hole?” “What’s a hobbit?” “What was it doing in a hole?” “Will it leave the hole?” And while I knew nothing about Ho Chi Minh City when I first read Artemis Fowl, I wanted to learn. The foreign sounding title awoke my sense of adventure.

The problem opening. This opening names a problem from the start. It may not be the problem, but it will point to the climax that will unfold.

“‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.” Louisa May Alcott’s opening for Little Women.

“When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it’s never good news.” Anthony Horowitz’s opening for Alex Rider: Stormbreaker.

Financial woes for our young heroine in Little Women and the impending doom faced by Alex in Stormbreaker. Such problems arouse sympathy (even on the part of Jo’s drama, which doubles to show us a good deal of her character) and keep the reader browsing on.

The first-person opening. This is the last opening we will discuss today. Books told in first-person carry with them unique strengths and challenges. Their opening sentences should ignore all location, all weather, all danger, all other characters except the narrator. Unless you have a good reason to break this rule, the first sentence of this kind of book must give readers a glimpse at who they will be following through the entire novel.

“Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood.” ~Rick Riordan’s opening for The Lightning Thief.

Such a comment makes us 1) feel sympathy for his unhappiness, 2) wonder what a ‘half-blood’ is, and 3) want to learn what events led him to wish he was not a ‘half-blood’. This makes for a powerful combo.

Opening types abound. Most are short; some are not. Most beg a question; some don’t. But the good ones all draw the reader towards the content of the entire book–not just the next paragraph. The one rule you should follow is this: make your reader want to uncover the adventure.

(Written 6/27. Scheduled for you while I am away.)

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