How Important Is Your First Sentence? + Capturing the Modern Reader

During week two of our Tate Publishing Winter '09 Staff Book Club, we discussed chapters two and three of Stein on Writing. Here the highlights:

Chapter 2: “Come Right In: First Sentences, First Paragraphs”

How early do you need to hook your reader? Our editing staff performed a people-watching exercise recently at Full Circle Bookstore in Oklahoma City, and we noted predictable results—it doesn’t take a book browser more than a few pages to decide whether or not to buy. The hooking power of your first chapter, first paragraph, first sentence is paramount to getting your book read.

What are the ideal goals of the opening paragraph? According to Stein, they are to 1. excite the reader’s curiosity, preferably about a character or relationship, 2. introduce a setting, and 3. lend resonance to the story. Though not easy to execute, these are simple principles, and they are fundamental to hooking a potential reader.

Reread the first sentence of your favorite book. Stein gives several excellent examples in a variety of genres that illustrate his point about the early hook. (I received some great responses as well in last week's comments.) Many times the scenes painted were typical, but the authors incorporated eccentricities or omens to stimulate the reader's mind. These were often included at the end of paragraphs as a way to add mystery and thrust the reader into next paragraph.

Ask 2 questions about your first sentence: Does it convey an interesting personality or an action that we want to know more about? Can you make it more intriguing by introducing something unusual, something shocking perhaps, or something that will surprise the reader?

Calling out lay writers: "The craft of creative writing is at least as complex as the craft of science. You wouldn’t want a layman walking into a hospital operating theater to deliver a child. Nor would you want a layman to design the next airplane your travel in. But writing? Can’t everybody do it?” The rhetorical answer is no. No, because not everyone has the will to study the craft, to work at it, to revise and rewrite and revise again. But these define writing much more than putting words on a page.

Chapter 3: “Welcome to the Twentieth Century”

We must be creatures of our time. Often writers think that to become a classic their work must emulate the 19th-century classics they read in school. However, for a book to survive and keep modern readers’ attention, it needs to move at the pace of the modern world. There are countless distractions vying for our readers’ time, and so we must be constantly conscious of pace. We must describe our settings succinctly, with as few adjectives as possible, and surround these descriptions with action.

What are the three forms of fiction? Description, narrative summary, and immediate scenes. And which should comprise the majority of your book? Immediate scenes—a vast majority.

How can you apply these principles to your writing? What is the first sentence of your book?

This Friday, February 13, we will be discussing Chapter 4, "Competing with God: Making Fascinating People." Grab a book and join us! At the end of the session I'll be giving away FREE BOOKS for all online participants!


Cliff Graham said...

I found these two chapters to be the most helpful of the book thus far. The tips about writing a book in tune with the current context was great, especially when writing historical fiction. Sometimes I feel the need to "age" the dialogue or descriptions too much, but that risks alienating the target audience.

Paul Louis Records said...

Chapter two is huge! I like a word Stein uses on page 19. Seize! The writer must seize the attention of the writer. He puts a lot of power in the first words of a novel and hits home when he says "a terrific sentence on page two won't help if the reader never gets there." He He, how true. This turned some wheels in my head and I thought of the first words of my current project: "Running. Running. Panic seizes my racing heart. The beast is chasing me and I am out of breath. . ."

Curtis Winkle, Executive Editor, Tate Publishing said...

Color me intrigued, Paul. CG - Agreed. We talk about balance quite frequently with historical fiction. You want the language to be fresh but reflect the setting at the same time. We're always on alert for words like "cool."

jessiethought said...

Thanks for this really helpful blog post. I haven't read that book, but I just might.

Regis LeClerc said...

The writer must capture the immagination of the reader quickly, especially when asking them to take a leap backwards before their time and enjoy the moment.

Post a Comment