Friday, October 11, 2013

Once Upon a Time…

Wait! I can’t begin with that. It’s been used before.

It was a dark and stormy night…
Rats! That’s been used, too.

Call me Ishmael.
No one in my story is called Ishmael.

Photo by Ed Yourdon, via Flickr
Do you have a problem with opening hooks and stilted characters in the beginning of your story? Judging from the manuscripts I’ve edited, the opening sentence, first page, and first chapter are often the most difficult to write. Why? We’ve crafted our character sketches and outlined our plot. We know how the story will play out and how it’s likely to end. Yes, but…

Our characters may be clearly defined on paper—or perhaps in our minds—but these formal introductions don’t give us the intimate knowledge we need to flesh them out on page one. We haven’t yet shared morning coffee with them, held their hands during a crisis, felt their pain when things go terribly wrong, laughed at their corny jokes, or wrapped our arms around them after everyone else walks away. In other words, they aren’t yet real to us.

As a little girl, I loved to play with paper dolls. Many hours were spent creating stories for my little two-dimensional characters, changing their clothes and rivaling The Perils of Pauline with the situations I put them in. But no matter how harrowing their make-believe lives became, they remained two-dimensional characters. They lacked depth.

Too often our stories start out on a flat note, and our characters lack depth. They don’t yet rise from the page to laugh, cry, love, hate, bake an apple pie, or whatever. They just lie there until we become familiar enough with them to take them by the hand and lift them up to join us (and ultimately our readers). How can we create strong characters and powerful hooks out of the gate? Recent posts have included one on story middles (“Your Manuscript’s Menacing Middle” by Elspeth Antonelli) and endings (“Sense of an Ending” by Diana Hurwitz). It seems only logical now to revisit beginnings.

Photo by Andrei Niemimäki, via Flickr
First sentences and first paragraphs must hook readers. “Call me Ismael.” Now that’s both an introduction and a hook. While Melville’s classic story may differ in many ways from today’s books (it was first published in 1851), Moby Dick’s opening has been dubbed by some as one of the best in literary history.

“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.”

In the first sentence, we meet the protagonist, who immediately shares some very revealing information about himself. We also learn the setting of the story, or at least a good part of it, is the sea. On a more personal note, we connect with Ishmael and quite possibly find common ground in his feelings…over 160 years later. Most assuredly, we want to read on. (And those of us who are editors may be so intrigued that we overlook the author’s generous splash of commas.)

We can learn a lot from Herman Melville’s beginning. Study it. Take it apart. Let the years melt away. Close your eyes and feel what his character is feeling. Ishmael is very real, and he’s telling us his story. Let your imagination drift ahead. See the masts of the ships in the nearby harbor. Listen to his words and the lapping of the waves. Smell the salt in the air. What a fantastic example of how to open a story!

How do you bring your characters to life on your first page? Do you struggle with beginnings? If so, how do you cope? Do you write first and fix later? Please tell us how Herman Melville's opening paragraph might help you in your writing.


Linda Lane and her editing team work with fiction and non-fiction writers from novices to pros. We offer developmental editing, copy editing, proofreading, and mentoring services. Please visit www.denvereditor.com to learn more about what we do.

13 comments :

  1. I always write the story first and then go back and do the first paragraph again. As you say, until you've been intimate with your characters, you can't really know them. And, until the story has developed, it's not realistic to assume that your initial hook is actually the right one. Thanks for this, Linda.

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    1. Isn't it interesting that our characters are so like our flesh-and-blood acquaintances in that we must spend time with them and get to know them well before we can describe them and portray their lives accurately?

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  2. I draft the entire story and work out all the plot holes, etc. The first and last sentences of each chapter are a separate revision layer. The first paragraph gets rewritten at least 20 times.

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    1. Yes, 20 times or more for the opening paragraph. Revisiting the first and last sentences of each chapter is a great idea. The first, of course, is the hook that keeps the reader reading, and the second propels her into the next chapter. I like this approach, Diana.

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  3. Thanks for the insights, Linda. I am guessing that Melville probably went back and reworked that opening. Like Stuart said, it takes time to know the characters well enough to get that opening right the first time.

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  4. Probably several times, I imagine. One of the most valuable aspects of this BRP blog, for me at least, is its ongoing exploration of the many layers of book writing. The first time I sat down to begin a story that I actually completed, I had no idea of what I was getting into. It has been an incredible journey and remains a daily learning experience that I wouldn't trade. Getting to know my characters has been one of the many benefits — one, I hope, that translates into better, more effective writing.

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  5. This was the best of posts, it was the worst of posts, it was wisest, it was foolhardy, it was so believable, it was so incredible, it was ... well, it was just a far, far better thing.

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    1. Do you hear me chuckling, Christopher?

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  6. I'm another one who rewrites that first paragraph many, many times and rethinks where to start the story many more times.

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  7. Isn't writing fun, Elspeth? Actually, this is what helps to make a good story a great read.

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  8. As I've grown as a writer, I'm cutting fewer and fewer CHAPTERS from my original opening of the book. I've stopped worrying about getting that first paragraph until much later in the process. I think the only book I've ever written where I actually started with a first sentence that remained relatively intact is my upcoming release. "No matter what Jinx's Klingon-spouting nephew said, today was not a good day to die." Not saying that's exactly how it appears now, but it's closer than anything else I've written.

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    1. Polishing the first paragraph later works for me, too. I've found that my stories sometimes take a twist I didn't expect, This may have a profound effect on my story opener, and I've been known to rewrite it from a new perspective...not at all where I had first envisioned it would be.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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