Your Story’s Opening Line: Look for the Mystery

image by qimono
image by qimono

I stopped reading “The Chain of Awesomeness” by Jeff Somers (Writer’s Digest July/August 2016). I brought up my first chapter to see if my opening line held the mystery Somers said was more important than shock or coolness (even though they’re good too).

My opening line contained some mystery. The reader might ask why my character was doing what she did. But I continued to read my chapter. Bong! There lay the sentence that had the mystery and the coolness.

image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images
image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images

And, I received a bonus. The second line of my new opening paragraph accomplished what Somers said the rest of the first paragraph should do:

“Offer a small amount of satisfaction for the reader who’s just been hooked by your awesome first line, then build on that intrigue.”

 

 

 

First Lines – No Mystery

  • The sun was out full force.
  • I live in California.
  • My name is Dawn.

These first lines don’t prompt the reader to ask a question.

image by Pezibear
image by Pezibear

Better Rewrites:

  • For the first time in a year, Hector saw the sun, and it was out in full force. (Why hadn’t Hector seen the sun in a year?)
  • Due to an accident, I live in California. (What accident caused the protagonist to live in California?)
  • Because of what happened at the first appearance of light on the day I was born, my name is Dawn. (What happened at the first appearance of light? Did the event have something to do with Dawn, the mother, or the town?)

First Lines With Mystery

For fun, I grabbed books from my shelves written before or at the turn of the twentieth century. It seems, even though the writing is different, the authors realized they needed to hook the reader with a mystery. You can see if they provoke a question for you.

  • “‘Mamma, what was that I heard papa saying to you this morning about his lawsuit?’” (Wide, Wide World by Elizabeth Wetherell)
    • What lawsuit was brought against the child’s father?
  • “‘Shall I ever be strong in mind or body again?’ said Walter Gregory with irritation as he left the sidewalk and crowded into a Broadway omnibus.” (Opening a Chestnut Burr by Rev. E. P. Roe)
    • What happened that Walter became weak in mind and body?
  • “It was a beautiful morning in the late July when I set forth on foot for the last time for Aros.” (The Merry Men by Robert Louis Stevenson)
    • Why was he going to Aros, and why was it the last time?)
  • “‘And so, dear old thing, I really can’t come.’” (The Marriage of Barry Wicklow by Ruby M. Ayres)
    • Why couldn’t the speaker come?
  • “In an upper chamber, through the closed blinds of which the sun is vainly striving to enter, Reginald Branscombe, fifth Earl of Sartoris, lies dead.” (Faith and Unfaith by The Duchess)
    • How did the Earl die and why is his death important?

Make sure your opening line raises a question for your readers. Click to tweet.

What’s the question you asked in the opening line of the book you’re currently reading?

Cramming in Characters: Overloads & Overwhelms Readers

image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images
image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images

A common first-chapter problem is introducing too many characters in the first scene. This can also be a problem for later scenes.

The Problem

  • image by OpenClipart-Vectors
    image by OpenClipart-Vectors
    Readers feel as if they’ve entered a gala with names thrown at them.
  • People can keep track of around three characters at a time.
  • Readers become confused and forget the many characters’ relationships to the protagonist.
  • Authors are less likely to round out people when too many are introduced at once.

Solutions

  • Introduce necessary characters; don’t simply name them.
  • Use names that sound different from names of other people.
  • Determine which characters are crucial. If they don’t have a short or long-term purpose, eliminate them.
  • image by geralt
    image by geralt
    Consider whether two or more characters can be combined into one character.
  • Decide which critical characters can be introduced later. This removes first-chapter overload and starts the story faster.

 

  • Space introductions of essential characters throughout the scene and give each a memorable feature, action, or dialogue.
  • Allow only characters in the first chapter who have purposes that support the setup and keep the focus on the protagonist.
  • Consider this in a scene: At a party, we wouldn’t receive the full background of the twenty people we meet.
  • Introduce two or three new vital characters in scenes subsequent to the first—after readers have had a chance to grasp the story setup. Then, each character can have his own cameo through action, dialogue, and the protagonist’s point of view.

An Example

At Mom’s wake, Millie’s brother, Don, introduced his college roommate, Mark. Before Millie had a chance to say more than hello, Sally and Vera, her mother’s closest friends approached and threw their arms around her. Extricating herself from Mom’s chums, Millie caught a glance of Ron over by the shrimp platter. She needed to speak to him. Of course, Mom’s cousin Emma, had to come. Emily, her daughter, followed her everywhere.

image by Unsplash
image by Unsplash

An Evaluation:

  • Mark never enters the story again or has any purpose.
  • Don and Ron and Emma and Emily are essential, but their names are too similar. Possibly Emma and Emily could be detained and arrive the following day.
  • Although we’re given how each person is related to Millie, we’re given nothing memorable to keep these 8 people straight.
  • Mom’s chums could possibly be combined into one friend.

Better Rewrite:

Millie’s chest caved. Couldn’t Don have honored their mother and come to her wake sober? Millie turned her sisterly glare into a smile as Mom’s closest friend Vera approached with outstretched arms. Vera’s arm flab flapped as she waddled closer. Extricating herself from Vera’s bear hug, Millie caught sight of handsome Erik half hidden by the oriental screen. Was Erik avoiding their needed conversation?

Best Rewrite: Now have moments spaced throughout the scene in which these 4 characters hint at or show their long- and short-term purposes to the chapter and story.

Be deliberate in introducing many characters so readers aren’t overwhelmed or confused. Click to tweet.

What other suggestions do you have for introducing characters?