Monday, May 29, 2017

Guest Post: FIRST LINE; FIRST PARAGRAPH by Jan Christensen

It is Monday and that means Jan Christensen is back today sharing wisdom…..


I have used the “Look Inside” feature on Amazon more and more when making a decision to buy a book or short story, especially if the author is new to me. And I’ve been rejecting several lately because they have what I consider a fatal flaw. They begin with a character alone and musing. I admit that some readers don’t mind this at all. But some will become quickly bored if the musing goes on too long, which it usually does. Musing, by definition, takes some time. In my opinion, it’s better to get right into the story and fill in the backstory when needed. Using the character is thinking about the past, after all.

What should the first line of your story do? Grab the reader, of course. How do you do that? For modern writers, usually having something exciting happen works well. Involve at least one sense, and you’ll do even better. The main character hears a scream, smells smoke, sees an airplane nosediving from the sky, touches something icky, tastes something odd.

To complete the first paragraph or sentences, be sure to plant the reader someplace specific. The character is most likely not floating out in space. Having her on the move is a good move. Some bit of action that nails the setting helps. Preferably physical action on her part, not in a car. A train might be okay. An airplane will work if she hears a scream or smells smoke or feels the plane taking a nosedive.

Whatever you do, don’t have the character waking up or just sitting around someplace thinking.
To recap, have your character’s senses on alert. Set your character in a specific place, and use a small bit of description to plant the reader. And finally, show the reader how your character is reacting emotionally to what’s going on around her.

A good exercise is to write down in your reader’s notebook every first line and paragraph you read that pulls you into the story. This includes first lines of scenes, not just the first line of a short story or novel. And perhaps also write down those that you feel are not very good.

Jan Christensen ©2017

Jan Christensen lives in Corpus Christi, Texas, and has had nine novels and over seventy short stories published.  


Susan Oleksiw said...

Good advice, Jan. I know I fall into that trap of "musing" when I begin but I immediately erase it and start over. I might be musing, but my character shouldn't be.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Excellent advice for all of us. Beginnings are the most difficult part to write. So we should start in medias res. I rewrite beginnings after I've written and edited my story or novel.

Jan Christensen said...

Thanks for commenting, Susan and Jacqueline. Of course, when I started writing, I often did the "musing" thing. Critiquerers pointed it out, and I decided they were right. And of course, I still catch myself doing it once in a while, but rarely anymore.

Earl Staggs said...

I try to catch myself with every opening, but I still do that musing thing once in a while. I should know better by now, but it's an easy trap to fall into.

Jan Christensen said...

Earl, I think most of us do it once in a while. I know one writer who does it almost all the time. When I was in a critique group with him, I always suggested he start later on, but he never seemed to change. He was obviously very comfortable writing that way. I'm sure some readers don't mind, but I'll rarely start reading a novel anymore that starts that way.