Monday, August 5, 2013

Creating tantalizing first sentences for your book

I was reading the former post by Kathy about writing first sentences and it brought to mind all the exciting first sentences (or not) in books I've read recently or created myself. I used to say, "I'm not like all those other readers who need the first couple of pages to pop out at me in order to read the book." Remember all the old English classics that described the environment for the first 100 pages and then suddenly "whop" you were into the trauma drama big time?

Well things change. I've found I'm just as bad as the the rest of them whoever "them" is. If I read the first pages and don't find myself excited by either the character or the plot, I set the book aside for a rainy day, which rarely comes. But now I pride myself on not being one of those readers who needs the first sentence or paragraph to be so exciting I can't put the book down.

I hate to tell you, but the other day I went to the library just to check out some mystery books and I noticed myself opening several books and reading the first paragraph, then putting the book back on the shelf . Ugh, I'm afraid I've joined the "now" generation.

But the realization has made me very aware of how important those first sentences or paragraphs are if you want your audience to read your book. So just for you, wonderful reader, I sat up late (for me that's 2:00 am) and worked at composing first sentences. Sentences like,"It was a dark and gloomy night" or whatever, probably would not be adequate for most readers today. I started off by reading the first sentences of some well-known authors.

Here are a few:

1. Billy Straight by Jonathan Kellerman
"In the park you see things.
But not what I saw tonight.
God. God."

2. The Litigators by John Grisham
"The law firm of Finley and Figg referred to itself as a "boutique firm." This misnomer was inserted as often as possible into routine conversations, and it even appeared in print in some of the various schemes hatched by the partners to solicit business."

3. The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown
"Since the beginning of time the secret had always been how to die."

4. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
"When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out...She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course she did. This is the day of the reaping."

Ouch. If you know what "the reaping" is you are scared for the young woman. After reading several beginnings like these, I figured I needed a beginning that would foreshadow an ominous future, something that readers would care about and feel compelled to find out what happened. I tried to think of some beginnings, but nothing came to me until I started to think of my own life experiences  I could embellish or change enough to fit a story.

So here goes:

1. If it hadn't been for the naked, bloated body of a man bobbing up and down on the waves near our motorboat, I would have said it was an ordinary day in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica.

2. As the plane banked to the left over the Beirut Airport preparing to land, all the passengers stared and gasped. Flames shot skyward out of three planes on the runway. It was May, 1969, just after Israel had bombed Lebanon.

3. My name is Angela Marie Jennifer Adams. I am a famous private investigator and I am certifiably insane.

4. This is actually the first paragraph I used in the mystery thriller Justice Forbidden I wrote a couple of years ago. The book is about a psychologist who is being sued for implanting a false memory in a client.

"As I see it there are only four ways my life as a clinical psychologist would likely end. I could depart this mortal plane from natural causes such as a heart attack after working myself to death; I could die of an accident like tumbling down three flights of stairs running after a suicidal client; I could commit suicide over the continued "yeah but" of another Esmeralda Sutton who refused to entertain any solutions to her problems; or I could be murdered by the legal system and carried out in a coffin bearing the name lawsuit engraved on a gold plate."

Now you know the secret. Foreshadow or start with a scary event so your audience will need to continue reading to find out what happens. Whether it is a mystery, a thriller, a romance, or women's fiction doesn't matter.

Create a conflict at the beginning. Then as some editors say, "Conflict, confict, conflict." Keep the conflict coming and keep them guessing.



Mary Jane Honegger said...

I usually tough it out and keep reading no matter how lame the first sentence, but if I'm not interested by the end of the first chapter I put it into the Garage Sale box. I have noticed that giving the first chapter away free on e-books works with me. I really like the chance to read that first chapter. If I'm interested, I purchase the book. If I'm not ... no sell. That's a pretty good reason to keep that conflict going right from that first sentence.

Jennifer Rova said...

Excellent post. You revived a story I am struggling with. I realize now that I have to start with the problem and not describe the setting and time first. Thanks!