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Meta ahead!  Beware of swearing.

I have a problem with beginning lines.  This is hardly rare, and I'm sure I'm not the only person who finds this pretty high up there on their list of Reasons Why Perfectly Good Stories Don't Get Finished.  What happens first isn't the problem: I always have an idea of the first scene, even if during the edit stage it gets cut or shifted about.  No, what I find hard is deciding on those first few words.  I've been told several hundred times that if I find those so hard I should just skip to some place I find easier--but I have a gut inclination towards starting at the beginning and writing through to the end of a story: it's just what works for me.  (If you're more flexible, I envy you.  Seriously.  My detailed planning goes in a roundabout order, and snippets might rear up from anywhere to be saved for later, but the actual bulk of the writing has to be Just So.)  By getting the 'perfect' (or at least, for the first draft, passable) first line I can slip into the mood for the story, establishing its feel and texture; I have a massive compulsion to fiddle around with them until I feel that the starting point for my story is exactly right.  You might say it's like the diving board: I want to make sure it's got just the right about of springiness for my leap.

Having said that, I rarely find perfect first lines, and I normally spend a lot of time looking for them.  It's what I should be doing right now, actually, except for this bit of procrastination right here.  ('Why do the writing when you can talk about it?' is a motto that seems to be subtly slinking into my life right now.  I don't like it.)  My Doctor Who story of the Tenth Doctor's emotional state after Rose's 'death' isn't going to get anywhere unless I work on it; sadly, right now, with the plot and imagery and theme settled, 'working' means hammering away at that elusive first line.  And trust me, it is hammering right now: later on I'll get out the delicate tools for whittling and engraving and shining, but at the moment I'm doing nothing so careful: just let me get the basic idea of the first line and I'll be happy.

First lines have a whole lot of tasks to fill, if you ask me, which is why I find them so important.
  1. The best ones clue the reader in to the genre/tone of what they're about to read: ideally--though not 100% essentially--the audience can tell from these few words some basic but important things about the story to come.  For instance, an idea of the tone is given: funny or angsty, for example.  This is one of the first steps in the 'contract with the reader', and it's important that it's right so you don't wrong foot people by writing a romcom when your first line implied you were going to offer them a deep, illuminating tale of existential angst.  (Not that romcoms can't be illuminating, but that's another post.)
  2. First lines also set the scene, often quite literally (it was a dark night...), and hopefully in a reasonably un-obscure way: confusing information given in the opener usually needs to be sorted out pretty quickly.  They can introduce characters, time period, location and, in fact, pretty much anything else.
  3. They need to be spelt and punctuated well, because a lot of people won't trust you to be able to display decent language in the rest of your fic if the first line contains painful misspellings.  (Typos happen to us all, but that isn't an excuse to have them in a finished work.  [Not that homonyms don't sometimes get past various edits and betas nevertheless, but c'est la vie.])  Don't have people facedesking in your first ten words: I've been there, it's not fun.
  4. Perhaps most importantly, your first line needs to be your hook.
Of course, the hook of your story doesn't have to be the first line, but in a reasonably short work, it has to be pretty close.  (For the sake of argument here, by 'first line' I really mean 'first few sentences'.)  The hook's what makes your reader want to continue.  Some readers don't need hooks: their hook was your pairing, or your title (another thing I agonize over), or even just your fandom.  I've certainly been in moods where I'll read anything with a TW/DW label (unless point 3 above is violated).  However, for each of those readers who are handed to you, the author, on a lovely silver platter, there are several others who need something to keep them reading.  If you're not writing something novel-length or otherwise epic, it probably needs to come pretty soon.  This is another big weight of expectation on that poor first line (or paragraph, or page, or--scale to your needs.)

I think that opening lines catch the reader's attention in several different ways, and the big ones, as I see them, are action, emotion, or a combination of the two. (I'm sure that better ways to clarify these hooks exist, and many more different types--but for now, these three'll do.  If you extend this theory to longer stories then hooks can be entire events, or cultures [a la Tolkien], etc--but I'm staying with short works for now.)  Different ones work in different stories and all of them can be used to great effect; it's deciding which one to use that is always my first major hurdle in story writing.  It's what I'm struggling with now for my Tenth Doctor piece.

  1. Action first lines drop the reader right into the middle of things.  They can also be dialogue.  Something is happening, and it's the interest in this which draws the reader in.  These first-line hooks involve some kind of 'huh?' moment for the audience, but hopefully the author can get them over that.  (Note that action first lines can be very emotional; they're just about the event, not specifically about the emotion it incites.)  Examples:
      1. Jack: Are you alone?  --  This is the beginning of my 18-rated Jack/Ianto fic, Priority Call.  Instantly questions are raised (beyond Jack's!): why does Jack want to know? is clearly the biggest.  Jack's question also has sexual connotations, setting the theme (see above) for a future PWP.
      2. Martha is asleep in another room, and Jack and the Doctor have been left alone with several cans of Mamraxian Ruffberry Beer. --  Another example of my work, from the 18-rated  Ten/Jack piece,  A Personal Foible.  Once more the reader is thrown right into things: it is what is happening that is interesting, or the potential for things to happen.  (More go-go-go versions of action hooks start with someone being shot, or someone entering a room with a gun: this is a very sedate action hook.)  Again, the possibility of intimacy of some kind is clearly foreshadowed: Martha is out of the way, and Jack--famously oversexed--and the Doctor have been left alone with chemicals likely to lower their inhibitions.
      3.  Other examples of this, just from my stuff--and they are  not the best  examples around!--come from 18-rated  Trinity, from the 'Sunshine' movie fandom, which begins with a statement that catches the reader's attention in a graphic way (and even includes that's how it all began,  a hugely blatant hook).
      4. Philip Roth's The Human Stain (which I highly recommend, despite problems I have with it) is a very good example of an action hook: it was in the summer of 1998 that my neighbour Coleman Silk--who, before retiring two years earlier, had been a classics professor at nearby Athena College for some twenty-odd years as well as serving for sixteen more as the dean of faculty--confided to me that, at the age of seventy-one, he was having an affair with a thirty-four-year-old cleaning woman who worked down at the college.  The action may be hidden in a voice's description, but it is action.
  2. Emotion first lines begin with a feeling, or a theme, or a mood.  Often a sweeping statement is made about something or someone.  Bob was never a happy man is an emotional hook: we instantly ask 'why'.  We would never forget that summer is an 'emotion' hook too: there is a belief, or a statement shown that is what draws the reader in.
      1. Ianto's a strange one.  --  This, the beginning of Redemption in Figures (rated 18), is an obvious emotional first-line hook.  What interests the reader is an idea: Ianto being strange.  They want justification; they want to know why Jack (from whose 3rd person perspective this section is told) thinks this; they are interested in seeing what has caused this judgment.
      2. ...I can't believe I don't have another emotion opener.
  3. Combination first lines are, surprise!, a combination of the two ideas above.  An opinion is expressed about an action, for instance.  Even as I packed Sarah's bag, I knew I'd have to tell her is a combination first-line hook: the reader is interested in both the action and the thought behind it.  It's hard to draw the line on what is a combination first line and what belongs in another category sometimes, for instance...
      1. Ianto stares at his hands and tries to remember how to breathe.  --  The opening of Lost (rated PG) feels like a combination to me, though I have trouble explaining why.  It's something to  do with the fact that there's action, yes, but also  a very strong idea: that of Ianto being unable to breathe.  This could have been expressed as a purely emotional hook  by being rephrased as  Ianto cannot remember how to breathe.  At least, I think.  Now my head is reeling.
      2. It is all the fault of the fucking French boy.  Or rather, it is all the fault of the French boy Jack is fucking.  --  Exorcism's beginning (Jack/Ianto, 18) is a good example--a much clearer example--of a combination first line.  The first sentence is purely emotional: the reader is hooked by wanting to know what is the fault of the French boy.  The second sentence strays into the territory of the action hook: the reader sees that Jack is having sex with the French boy, and now not only do they wish to know what is his fault, but they want to know why Jack is fucking him, and who he is.  This first line is a bit of a double-whammy of interesting then (I hope!) because it attracts interest in terms of ideas and events simultaneously.
I don't think that one of these forms of introduction is better than another; but I think each has different effects.  For each story I usually try out one, or more, of each type; sometimes one just works.  I'm pretty sure I need a combination or pure-action first-line hook for my current fic, for instance: foreshadowing and balancing means that the opener needs to be a very strong visual image, and I think starting with an emotion first-line would dilute the effect of that a little.  But in the end I'm stuck in the same place I was stuck in before: I have no first line, even if I do now have a page of meta.

Oh dear.

[I'm sure there are misspellings and grammar problems in the above, Sod's Law etc.  Another big disclaimer is that I'm hardly qualified to say all this; it's just my opinion, and it works for what I write.  YMMV.  Enlighten me on what works for you!  What is your favourite kind of opening line?  What are the best examples you can think of?

(And, unrelated, where is/are the best place(s) on LJ to post DW fiction?)]
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November 2012

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