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?

3 Resources You Need to Write a Readable Novel

“Most people have no idea of the gigantic capacity we can immediately command when we focus all of our resources on mastering a single area of our lives.” —Anthony Robbins

by dave
by dave

We could drown in all the resources available to improve the writing of our novels. But we can develop three general resources that will make a big difference in the writing and readability of our books.

Resource 1: A General Writing Method from Start to End

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

We have many great writing methods to choose and study from. When I tried to incorporate several, I became overwhelmed. And sometimes confused.

I think it’s best to choose one method that fits your style and study that one method. I went with My Book Therapy’s take on the 3-Act Structure. You can find other great ones, such as Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method.

I joined the people at My Book Therapy online, attended one of their week-long workshops, and purchased their manuals. I sit in on their sessions at writers’ conferences. I feel like I’m getting a good grasp of the concepts.

Of course, I learn from many varied resources, but I have my foundation in one method.

Tweetable

  • Find one general writing method that fits you and study it. click to tweet

Resource 2: Teachings from Writing Experts That Will Take You Deeper

by kumarnm
by kumarnm

Once you’ve chosen a foundation method, you’ll want to go deeper.

I learned the following concepts from My Book Therapy, but going deeper has helped me round out the concepts. These spoke to me the most.

• For the hook and the inciting incident: Hooked by Les Edgerton
• For techniques and strategies: Stein on Writing by Sol Stein
• For elements characters must possess: Goal, Motivation and Conflict by Debra Dixon
• For methods to get inside main characters: Rivet Your Reader with Deep Point of View by Jill Elizabeth Nelson (See my Deep Point of View post.)

You can find many more recommended resources if you join writers groups.

Tweetable

  • Once you’re comfortable with the elements of writing, go deeper. click to tweet

Resource 3: Your Arsenal of Quick References

Image courtesy of digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The reference sources below have been recommended repeatedly in various venues. I use them for most of my questions. Besides a click-away dictionary and thesaurus, I also have lists I’ve found online. For example, long lists of alternate words for the act of walking, pulling, etc. Lists of clichés to avoid or re-mold.

The Chicago Manual of Style put out by The University of Chicago Press. Used by many editors. I got the online version.
Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing by Mignon Fogarty.
Polishing the “Pugs” by Kathy Ide. Punctuation, Usage, Grammar, and Spelling.
Flip Dictionary by Barbara Ann Kipfer “When you know what you want to say but can’t think of the word.”
The Positive Traits Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi.
The Negative Traits Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi.
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and David King.

Tweetable

  • Build an arsenal of online or paper copy references to keep at your fingertips. click to tweet

What are the writing resources you go back to time and again?

A Fun Way to Liven Up Your Scene’s Dialog

“Find the “hook” or the zinger in every sentence, and have characters react to that.”        —Susan May Warren

Dialog

You want your dialog to be real, meaningful, and hold your readers’ interest.

Here’s what Susan May Warren calls her “super-secret Susie hint to writing great dialogue” that I learned in one of her Deep Thinker’s Retreats.

Include a zinger in conversations.

You can learn how to write zingers in Susan May Warren and Rachel Hauck’s writing reference, From the Inside…Out.

Below are examples from 4 novels to show you what a zinger is and how to use it.

Zinger 1

—from Wish You Were Here by Beth K. Vogt

by gracey
by gracey

∂∂∂

“Uh, is that the dress?”

Was he choking back a laugh? Confirmation the dress was a nightmare.

“Yes. Please, no comment.” Allison ran her hands along the flowing skirt as if she could tame it. Not going to happen.

“It’s impressive.”

Allison blew a wisp of hair out of her eyes. “Are you kidding me? I look like the Bridal Fashion Disaster Barbie.”

∂∂∂

Suppose this ended with, “I wish that were true.” Wouldn’t that have killed the conflict, and the fun?

Zinger 2

—from The Wedding Dress by Rachel Hauck

∂∂∂

“Tell me,” she whispered. “Does he?”

“Have a mistress?”

She gazed into his eyes. He couldn’t…it would crush her. Her fingernails dug into his arm.

“Daniel.”

“Yes. So goes the word around town. But you should find out the truth yourself, Emily. You know how gossip gets all twisted and maligned.”

“No, no.” She jutted backward, shaking her head, her dark eyes narrowing. “You’re a liar, Daniel Ludlow. I don’t believe you.”

∂∂∂

What if Emily had simply said, “I don’t believe you.” We wouldn’t know how hurt she is. Calling Daniel a liar shows what “kill the messenger” means. She zinged Daniel and raised the conflict.

Zinger 3

—from Just Between You and Me by Jenny B. Jones

∂∂∂

“Maggie, tonight is a very special night.”

Uh-oh. Here come the dreamy eyes again.

“I care so much about you. And recently I realized those feelings have grown into something more. I’m crazy about your laugh, your smile, your sense of adventure. I want to tell you that I—”

“Boy, am I tired.”

∂∂∂

Zing!  Did Maggie’s last words wake you up? Suppose Maggie had said, “Please. Not tonight, John.” We might prepare to read through a laborious letdown.

Zinger 4

—from Nothing but Trouble by Susan May Warren

 ∂∂∂

by Kandi
by Kandi

PJ reached the second fence and didn’t care in the least that she ripped out the backside of the jumpsuit. She landed with another whump while the goat shoved his nose between the chain links, mawing. Good thing Billie filled up on Ernie’s tulips or tomatoes or whatever, or she’d be goat fodder by now.

Pizza Guy landed beside her. “You have a fan club.” He held out his hand to pull her up.

She swatted it away. “It’s not funny. She could have eaten me.”

“Oh yeah, goats are known predators. Right up there with mountain lions and wildebeests.”

∂∂∂

What if Pizza Guy had said, “The goat wouldn’t have eaten you.” He’d seem bland, unable to banter.

Tweetable

  • Study these zingers and learn how to hook your audience with dialog.
    click to tweet

What zinger have you used in dialog?