First Lines: Introducing an Intriguing Character

Monday, May 22, 2017

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’m not captured by the first sentence in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, but the following sentences succeed where the first fails. Here is the entire beginning paragraph:

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

I can’t help wondering what a highly educated and apparently intelligent man is doing as an ordinary seaman. I’m intrigued, so I keep reading. That’s why this type of opening works.

Then there is Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. The first paragraph is too long to quote in full, so here are the first two sentences.

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them.

Clearly, Holden has an “attitude,” and that attitude intrigues some readers. I’m not one of them, but that goes to a point in a previous post: no first line (or first paragraph) will appeal to everyone. In fact, no story will appeal to everyone. I can tell from the first paragraph that the book is filled with profanity, so I’ll pass. But for some readers, the opening has the opposite effect. And even though I choose not to read The Catcher in the Rye, maybe that’s also a function of a successful first line—to weed out the readers who won’t appreciate the book.

Like Salinger in The Catcher in the Rye, C.S. Lewis begins The Voyage of the Dawn Treader with the description of an intriguing youth and his parents.

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. His parents called him Eustace Clarence and masters called him Scrubb. I can’t tell you how his friends spoke to him, for he had none. He didn’t call his Father and Mother “Father” and “Mother,” but Harold and Alberta. They were very up-to-date and advanced people. They were vegetarians, non-smokers and teetotalers and wore a special kind of underclothes. In their house there was very little furniture and very few clothes on the beds and the windows were always open.

What kind of boy almost deserves to be called Eustace Clarence Scrubb? Not a very likeable one, but intriguing none-the-less. And I have read and enjoyed this book. I originally bought it because I like the author, but I also appreciate the writing style.

As with any other opening, however, there are pitfalls to beginning a book by introducing an intriguing character. The first is self-evident: not making the character sufficiently intriguing to capture the reader’s attention. Just because I love my character doesn’t mean my readers will have the same feeling at the beginning of the book. By the time I finalize those opening paragraphs, I have been living with my protagonist for months and know both her quirks and her deepest secrets. When a new reader looks at the first pages to make a purchasing decision, he or she doesn’t know that character yet. The trick is to make the reader feel the same interest the author does but do it while the character is still a stranger to the reader. And that isn’t easy.

The other pitfall is maintaining the momentum. The character must fulfill the promise of the opening lines and remain intriguing throughout the story. If you empty your gun at the beginning and never reload, readers will cheer for you (as author) to die in the dust. And they won’t return for the next gunfight.

So if you want to begin with an intriguing character, make sure he or she fulfills that promise.

Next week we will move on to openings that foreshadow the story.

First Lines: Starting with a Bang

Monday, May 15, 2017

I stared at the gun in my hand before transferring my gaze to the dead author on the floor. She deserved to die. It was the only way to stop her from beginning her next romance with yet another car chase.

One approach to first lines is to begin with a bang—a startling event that captures a reader’s or viewer’s attention—such as an abduction or a car chase. Or it can be the literal bang of a gunshot. This type of opening is often used with action adventures, but it isn’t limited to that genre.

For an example from literary fiction, consider the opening paragraph from The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (as translated by David Wyllie).

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 waking up to discover you’ve been changed into a giant insect isn’t a startling event, then nothing is. The bang in The Metamorphosis is both unexpected and gigantic.

But the bang doesn’t have to be big to work. Here is the beginning of I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining-board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea-cosy. I can’t say that I am really comfortable, and there is a depressing smell of carbolic soap, but this is the only part of the kitchen where there is any daylight left. And I have found that sitting in a place where you have never sat before can be inspiring—I wrote my very best poem while sitting on the hen-house. Though even that isn’t a very good poem. I have decided my poetry is so bad that I mustn’t write any more of it.

In these two examples, the first line is the one that creates the bang. And fortunately for the reader, the rest of the paragraph keeps the interest going.

So why doesn’t every story start with a bang? Because it doesn’t always work. Like every other type of opening, this approach has its pitfalls.

First, it’s too easy to start with an event that has nothing to do with the story. I’ve read many manuscripts and even some published books that fall into this trap. Somebody told the writer to start with a thrilling adventure, so the writer forces a car chase or a murder into the opening of a gentle romance. Unfortunately, it doesn’t fit.

But, you may ask, what about Raiders of the Lost Ark? Doesn’t that start with an unrelated adventure? Yes and no. The action sequence that begins the movie is not part of the actual story line, but it is related. First, it tells us something about Indiana Jones’ character. Second, it is consistent with and sets the mood for what follows. For these reasons and possibly others, it works. The car chase or murder that begins the gentle romance can’t claim those connections.

The second pitfall of opening with a bang is the temptation to begin the story in the wrong place. I was writing a women’s fiction novel about a woman who idolized her father until she discovered that he was a swindler. She doesn’t forgive him until she thinks he was killed in a car crash. The accident was the most dramatic event in the story, so I tried to start there. Unfortunately, I would have had to tell most of the story as a flashback. A few writers can pull it off, but I’m not one of them.

If your story allows you to start with a bang naturally, then do it. But if not, there are plenty of other choices.

Next week we’ll talk about using the first lines to introduce an intriguing character.

First Lines: You Can't Please Everyone

Monday, May 8, 2017

No first line will appeal to everyone. If that’s your aim as a writer, you will never stop fiddling and start submitting. So find something you like and go with it.

Although I’m a Dickens fan, I have personally never seen the attraction in “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . . .” The entire paragraph is a single run-on sentence that goes on and on in the same vein, and I just want it to stop. Yet this is often quoted as an example of a good first line.

I also can’t see the attraction in “Call me Ishmael” from Moby Dick, which is probably the most quoted example of a good first line. Like most of the readers from Herman Melville’s time, I know who Ishmael was: a Biblical figure (Abraham’s oldest son) who was sent into exile because Abraham’s wife was jealous that Ishmael would take first place over her own son, Isaac. So yes, maybe the Ishmael of Moby Dick was cast out too, and that probably isn’t his real name since he says “Call me Ishmael.” But although it creates some mystery, it doesn’t make me curious enough to keep reading.

Fortunately, it isn’t just the first sentence that counts. “Call me Ishmael” doesn’t grab my attention, but the rest of the paragraph does. It shows the narrator as a highly-educated man who is working as a common sailor. Now Ishmael intrigues me, so I want to learn more about him.

Then there is A Christmas Carol. Again, the first sentence is mildly interesting, but it is the narrator’s continued rambling that sets the tone of the book and makes me want to read on. Here is the entire first paragraph.

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

This passage tells me repeatedly that Marley is dead, but it doesn’t tell me why that matters. The first paragraph leaves me with a question that won’t get answered unless I continue reading.

The next paragraph doesn’t provide the answer, but it keeps my attention because the detour is interesting and has its own purpose. Here’s the second paragraph.

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefor permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

This paragraph sets the tone (informal and conversational) and introduces me to the omniscient narrator. That last point is important because now I won’t be thrown out of the story when the narrator adds something that the characters themselves can’t know.

But I still don’t understand why it matters that Marley is dead. Will the next paragraphs answer my question?

Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? Scrooge and he were partners for I don’t know how many years. Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend, and sole mourner. And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnized it with an undoubted bargain.

The mention of Marley’s funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet’s Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot—say Saint Paul’s Churchyard for instance—literally to astonish his son’s weak mind.

Now I’m even more curious. What remarkable thing is going to happen because Marley is dead? If I wasn’t hooked after the first paragraph, I am by the fourth. And that allows Dickens to take six more pages to fill in Scrooge’s character before answering the question that peaked my interest in the first place. Six pages where I keep reading even though I don’t yet know how those events relate to Marley’s death.

So how do you get a reader to keep reading? Grab the reader’s attention in the first few paragraphs and clue the reader in to the style and narrator of the book. If everything comes together, you may have a new fan.

Over the next five weeks I’ll cover the main types of effective openings as identified in last week’s post. Next week I’ll start with a bang.

First Lines: Dispelling the Myth

Monday, May 1, 2017

It’s a commonly held belief that first lines sell books, but it’s a myth.

First lines don’t sell books. Good writing sells books.

I’m not arguing that first lines aren’t important. Of course they are. But a good first line is not enough if the writing that follows is weak.

Even so, the first line is one of the most crucial parts of the book. I spend hours trying to come up with the right first line and am never satisfied. As a writer, I’m not the best person to tell you how to craft one. But as a reader, I know what captures me and what doesn’t. So in this post and the ones that follow, I’ll give you my thoughts as a reader.

Technically, “line” and “sentence” are not synonyms, but that’s how most writers use them when talking about opening lines. I will do the same and use them interchangeably to mean “sentence.”

Every article or blog post or lecture on writing the opening line starts by stating that the purpose of that line is to hook the reader and make him or her want to read on. Most also acknowledge that it isn’t quite that simple. You also need to clue the reader in to the style of the book and provide information on characters and settings. Very few authors and books can do that in one sentence or even one paragraph. So yes, start strong. But the first line doesn’t stand alone.

In my experience, there are five main types of effective openings. They are:

·       Starting with a bang (e.g., the car chase opening);

·       Introducing an intriguing character;

·       Foreshadowing;

·       Raising questions in the reader’s mind; and

·       Telling the whole story.

Each approach has pitfalls, and none works in all instances. A good writer will match the opening to the story. So how does he or she do that?

Stay tuned.

I Give In

Monday, April 24, 2017

Once upon a time, I queried agents for an early chapter book. They all rejected it, and they should have.

Later, I tried with Christian women’s fiction. I happen to think that these novels were and are as good as many (although far from all) of the ones published by Christian publishers, and hopefully that isn’t all hubris. But again I found nothing but rejection.

My writing has continued to improve, and I have now found my true passion in middle grade historical fiction. So is it time to try again?

My past experience looking for agents and the wisdom gleaned from other writers has taught me two things.

(1)   First, it’s almost as hard to find a good agent as it is to find a traditional publisher and, as a corrolary, those agents that are easy to find don’t have the necessary connections.
(2)   Second, author and agent need to click together like puzzle pieces. An effective author-agent relationship is also a close one, and personality matters.
Since I don’t need an agent to review my publishing contract and tell me what to negotiate, I was hoping to get away without one. But there is more to an agent’s job than just understanding and negotiating a contract. I’m not a good salesperson, and the larger, more-established publishing houses don’t take unagented submissions. They make exceptions for people who attend conferences where they appear and I take advantage of those opportunities, but that still leaves a number of closed doors. So I have given in and am searching for an agent again.

Let’s hope it goes better this time.

The True Meaning of Chistmas

Monday, April 17, 2017

“Wait a second,” you say. “The true meaning of Christmas? Aren’t you getting your holidays mixed up?”

No. I wrote what I wrote, and I’m sticking to it.

Christmas isn’t about gifts or decorations or family dinners. It is about the birth of a baby who was fully God and yet fully man—about God’s only Son humbling Himself and becoming like me (except without sin, which is a HUGE difference).

But the baby we celebrate at Christmas came with a special mission. Although He came to live among us for a while, His ultimate purpose was to die a painful and dishonorable death. A death He didn’t deserve—but we do. A death followed by a resurrection that He deserved—but we don’t. Or, to put it in Sunday School terms, Jesus died on the cross to save us (me and you) from our sins. But death wasn’t the end. It couldn’t hold Him, and it won’t hold us. Jesus’ resurrection is proof that He is God, and it assures me that I will live eternally with Him.

I don’t understand why God chose to do things this way, but I’m grateful He did.

If Christ had not come to earth as a baby, we would have no reason to celebrate Easter.

That’s why the true meaning of Christmas is Easter.





This is a reprint from April 5, 2010.

A Shadow of His Image

Monday, April 10, 2017

Sometimes my mind wanders while I’m in church, but it isn’t always a bad thing. This Lenten season I noticed the shadows cast by the altar cross during Wednesday evening services, and they preached their own sermon.  

If you look at the physical cross in the center of the picture, you will notice that it stands up straight and perfectly formed, while the images created by its shadows are bent and distorted. Here is a closer look.

Christ was born and died as perfect Man, while those originally created in His image have been bent and distorted by sin. You could argue that Christ became bent and distorted as well (temporarily) when He took on our sin and paid for it by His death, but He would not have been a worthy substitute if He had not been sinless in His own thoughts and actions.

That wasn’t the case for the two thieves who were crucified on either side. When one of them hurled insults at Christ, the other reminded him, “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” (Luke 23:41, NIV) And yet, in the most important sense, only one of the thieves got what his deeds deserved. Both deserved hell, but one received heaven.

Sin has distorted my image, too. Even so, God sees me as straight and as perfectly formed as the Man on that middle cross. Because He took on my punishment, I won’t get what I deserve, either.

“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20, NIV.)

Praise be to God.