In the Beginning: The First Sentence

“They’re out there.”

You don’t have to be paranoid to see this sentence as a warning of some kind. That’s the opening line of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey. When you discover that the next few paragraphs describe a patient in a mental ward you are not surprised.

That first sentence sets expectations for the tone of a book.

Though it should probably be one of the last items you finalize before your book or short story is finished, it can be the most important sentence in the entire work. Potential readers usually glance at the first page and, if I can judge by my own actions, decide then and there whether or not to buy the book.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

This line starts with a little sarcastic humor and suggests that this story will lead to some kind of romantic adventure. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice delivers the goods, admittedly mostly to women. But it’s a great book.

“She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise.”

A little bit of humor, a touch of confusion and dismay, and you have the first sentence in Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth. And it seems perfectly logical that, within the next couple of paragraphs, the bitter protagonist is speaking to a doctor.

Some writers can start immediately with that surefire hook the minute they put pen to paper – or fingertip to keyboard. Some of us work our way up to that sentence, once we’ve written a few pages or gone deeper into our protagonist’s character.

Of course, your story can take the exact opposite tone of what your first sentence implies, but that’s like smashing your reader in the face with a pie. It might be funny for a second, but it just hurts and makes him angry.

I usually go back to the first page (75? 100 times?) and revise the first sentence and paragraph as the story matures. It’s also important for me to compare the tone of that first sentence to the last sentence – but I’ll talk about that in another post.

And lastly, I can’t resist, had great fun with this one!

“It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

 

 

Point of View – How Do You Choose?

Understanding the point of view devices used in fiction writing – even movies and documentaries – is often a confusing process. Terms such as, first person, third person, objective, omniscient, or limited omniscient can give a writer the vapors. Each method has its advantages and drawbacks.

A writer has to make the point of view decision fit into a “trifecta” of good narrative – the plotline/action, the characters (well-developed, of course) in relation to each other, and the perspective from which the journey is revealed to the readers.

The first book I finished was in third person. I presented several characters’ points of view throughout the book. There were many individuals on the protagonist’s “side” so I felt they had a shared experience, although they didn’t all receive the same amount of attention to their part in the story.

I had to be careful to reveal just enough of each character’s thoughts to move the plot forward. I didn’t want me, as the author, to intrude upon the readers’ discovery and involvement in the journey. And that’s why the bad guys’ point of view was never revealed. The antagonist and all his followers were seen only from the good guys’ perspective.

I have just about wrapped up my second book, unrelated to the first. Because I really wanted to concentrate on the main character’s struggle to mature and take on a serious, and seriously dangerous, responsibility, first person was my choice for point of view.

I struggled in the first couple of chapters with the first person past tense and just could not get the rhythm of the story going. I switched to first person present tense, and I immediately felt a real kinship with my character. The hardest part of first person is to not start every other sentence with “I” – difficult sometimes, but not impossible.

The important lesson I learned with both experiences is that a writer must feel comfortable, must honestly see that the point of view contributes to the story’s success.

Here are some sites that discuss the literary point of view conundrum.

Annenberg Learner

The Writer’s Craft

Novel Writing Help

Sheila Larang on Prezi