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The First Lines

29 March 2013

From author and regular visitor J.M. Ney-Grimm:

What makes a good opening? How does a writer engage the strong interest of her reader?

Writing stories is an art. In a sense, there are as many good opening structures as there are good stories. Every story’s first few paragraphs are unique to that story.

However…you knew there’d be a “however,” didn’t you?

There is a structure that consistently hooks most readers’ attention. This “hook opening” won’t be right for every story, but it serves many of them well.

A character with a problem in a setting.

. . . .

There’s also one more critical element.

My teacher recounts how that critical element made all the difference for him. Decades ago, when he was first starting out and before he incorporated this key element, he received nothing but form rejections from publishers. After…he received personal letters for his rejections and…a beginning stream of acceptances! That’s how important this is.

What is it?

Ground your reader in what your character is seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting. Make your opening rich with sensory detail. Your reader will feel like she or he is there, chilled by the breeze, smelling cinnamon, tasting vanilla, hearing chapel bells, and watching the cavalry thunder over the hill crest.

Touch on all five senses in the first three paragraphs and continue to mention them every 500 words.

Link to the rest at J.M. Ney-Grimm

Fiction Fundamentals, Writing Advice

35 Comments to “The First Lines”

  1. Before I say whether I agree or disagree with this, I’d like to see an example of said opening.

    Because my instincts are saying, “No.”

    • Dan,

      There’s an example on the page referred to:

      http://jmney-grimm.com/2013/03/the-first-lines/

      “That morning, Clary had stood in the front room, turning slowly. The cloth on the table under the windows hung askew, its corner tassel dragging on the weathered pine floor. The candles had guttered in their sockets, the wicks drowning amidst congealed wax. One, burned only halfway, lay fallen under the gluey drips from the gravy boat. Clary’s fingers crept to her mouth.”

      brendan

  2. “Touch on all five senses in the first three paragraphs and continue to mention them every 500 words.”

    Another formula.

    Dan

    • The one I heard was hit all five senses every couple pages, which I guess works out to about every 500 words. Sensory details are important.

      • “Sensory details are important.”

        Sometimes. But forced into every two pages, just because? I probably wouldn’t bother to finish that book.

        • Hmm. Now I need to go sit in my office and browse through books to find one that doesn’t have sensory details every couple pages…

          • Ooh! A challenge! Now I’m curious and resisting an urge to go tally my own bookshelves. If you do…might you post a list here?

          • No one’s saying no sensory details. But every two pages? That’s all five senses every ten pages (and that’s if we’re staggering them … Heaven forbid we’re supposed to mention all five together every two pages), or every sense thirty times in a 300-page book, just to fulfill an arbitrary requirement.

            I don’t think I mentioned taste once in one of my novels, merely because it never came up.

            • You’re making me laugh. And just gave me a story idea!

              Computer-moderated conscious a la Matrix controls each individual’s awareness unbeknownst to him or her. Super computer enamored of clockwork use of 5 senses. So every 500 words, character immersed in sudden deluge of hearing, smell, taste, touch, no matter what else is happening: thinking deep thoughts, trying to go to sleep, trying to read, etc. Very annoying and distracting! (Of course, that’s just the set up, not the plot. :D)

            • “I don’t think I mentioned taste once in one of my novels, merely because it never came up.”

              Dan,

              Let no one ever say I am without compassion to my fellow man.

              I have entirely left that alone, without riposte, (which it richly deserved.)A tasty treat which I originally thought you had served up as my straight-man:)

              I did not dispatch it to the long grass, because, dear heart, you are having a bad day.

              Back to the keyboard, lad…..Wip, Wip, Wip!

              brendan

  3. As the cavalry thundered over the cinnamon hill at full and deadly speed, the hoof claps like chapel bells, Drake pondered just two things: Why does this sword taste like vanilla, and why is it so g***** cold?

  4. “I also tend to like faster-paced thrillers and horror, so YMMV.”

    Dan,

    Estudiente’s gripping tale of a horseman riding by, while sword swallowing a vanilla ice cream may perhaps be more to your taste.

    🙂

    brendan

  5. My favourite opening sentences are those that manage immediately to put me in a setting as well as generating conflict.

    “The last camel collapsed at noon” in Ken Follet’s The Key to Rebecca is perhaps by all time favourite. You get desert and desperation in just six words.

    I also like Stephen Kings: “The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.” Again, straight away with the conflict and setting.

    The worst openings, for me, are always those where characters are waking up. Or my personal bug bear: a glimpse of some incident that happens much later in the novel, but is referenced in the first line just as a hook, usually with something like “Two days before [insert dramatic conflict] Jane was just a normal girl etc etc.” Grrr.

    • Or my personal bug bear: a glimpse of some incident that happens much later in the novel, but is referenced in the first line just as a hook, usually with something like “Two days before [insert dramatic conflict] Jane was just a normal girl etc etc.”

      Me too. This can work, but it has to have a really good reason. 99% of the time, it means the writer is going to bore me for the next several pages with unnecessary flashbacks.

  6. “characters are waking up.”

    Robert,

    Written in hope some screen developer will catch sight of it and regard it as an opportunity to show a lass in her underwear or less.

    “Iss in the book, innit luv? Of course it’s necessary to the script for you to git yer kit off.”

    brendan

  7. snickers?

    Nickers, more like…

    Or not as the case may be.

    [Still tying to cope with the sword tasting like vanilla…]

  8. The problem with this is that it assumes all readers are the same and they all want the same thing from a book’s opening pages and that they all experience story in the same way. But that’s just not true.

    Personally, if you try to include a lot of sensory detail in a short space I’m likely to get overwhelmed and frustrated by it. It doesn’t help me to experience the story better. It doesn’t make me feel like I’m there.

    And that’s why I’m firmly against anything approaching a “formula”. Any formula or method will inevitably give some types of readers what they want while overlooking others. I’ve been a victim of the “only THIS type of story/writing will appeal to readers” mindset in publishing. I’ve had to retreat to the stories of previous generations (which aren’t always easy to acquire) to satisfy my literary desires.

  9. Apologia 😉 (sort of)

    Me: I didn’t intend to champion a writing formula.

    Alter ego: Izzat so?

    Me: Um. Yes, it is.

    Alter ego: Well, guldarnit, JM! “Touch on all five senses in the first three paragraphs and continue to mention them every 500 words.” Hullo?!

    Me: Ahem. Yes, yes. I said that.

    Alter ego: [menacingly] JM!

    Me: Might I explain…

    Alter ego: [glares silently]

    Me: But, but! What about: “Writing stories is an art. In a sense, there are as many good opening structures as there are good stories. Every story’s first few paragraphs are unique to that story.”

    Alter ego: [looks down nose] “Touch on all five senses in the first three paragraphs and continue to mention them every 500 words.”

    Me: [uneasily] That is awfully definite.

    Alter ego: [tilting head] A retraction, JM?

    Me: [stung] No! “We humans are corporeal beings, and we relate to our world and the people in it via our bodily senses. Stories are about the human condition, and a story that’s thin on sensory detail is a story rather distant from our human experience.”

    Alter ego: 500 words, JM.

    Me: [jutting chin] “I’ll leave that answer to my readers. Because stories are an art, after all. Sometimes three senses – sight, hearing, taste – might be enough.” Or less!

    Alter ego: [raises brow] First three paragraphs? Continue to mention? [shakes head]

    Me: But! But! “I’m still not hitting all five senses, but – again – this is art, not science.”

    Alter ego: [meaningly] JM.

    Me: [small voiced] But it’s good advice.

    Alter ego: Don’t you think that a writer should be a bit more articulate? Write what she really means without implying things she doesn’t mean?

    Me: [hands in air] I give! I give!

    Alter ego: Retraction?

    Me: No! But [grudgingly] your points are good.

    Alter ego: Hah!

  10. I think the trick here is that the senses can be evoked more subtly and easily than people think.

    Crispy bacon.

    There you go – taste, touch, smell, probably sight were all evoked in two words. Add the sizzle of it in the cast-iron pan, and you’ve got all 5. It doesn’t have to be overblown purple prose. Just ground your reader in sensory detail, and do it consistently enough that they’re not floating in a space full of talking heads and white rooms. 🙂

  11. This is excellent, J.M.

    3 or 5 senses, I agree!

    • Thanks, Mira.

      I found the workshop material (where I learned about the inner structure of the hook opening) particularly convincing when I thought of my experiences as a reader. I could recall vividly the sensation of reading stories and just feeling “I don’t believe it.”

      At the time, I didn’t know why I could not suspend my disbelief. I felt like I ought to be able to do so. The characters were engaging and well rounded. The plot was intriguing. Why did it seem so flat?

      Since I don’t remember either titles or authors, I can’t go back to check. But my strong hunch is that the sensory detail was thin.

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