Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. If I Were Your Writing Coach, I Would Start You at the Beginning

 

Your first line is the most important of your written work. It is like the door to your house or business. You want it to be inviting so the reader will feel welcome and come for a visit in the world you have created. If the door to your house is chipped and scuffed and needs painting or refinishing and maybe the screen on the storm door is hanging loose, people might be a little hesitant to come visit. If you want to be a professional writer, your first line is the door to your business. If the opening of your written work is sloppy or uninteresting, why would the reader want to move on to the next line? If the first paragraph is dull or passive or even seemingly evasive through being non-specific, why would a reader want to bother reading the second paragraph? You don’t want your reader to feel like they have entered a rough part of town where few of the houses are maintained.

As mentioned in the previous entry of this series, I critique a fair number of works of art before they are seen by the public. While I have critiqued works of visual and industrial art, my forte is in the written word. I have helped other authors develop poems, short stories, novellas, novels, and even non-fiction works. I often come across the same issues in the works of many authors, especially those who are amateurs or just trying to break into the profession. This conversation will highlight one of these common issues and errors: the weak opening.

Action and Active Voice

If you are writing most types of fiction, write your first sentence in the active voice. You probably want the whole first paragraph in the active voice. You want to establish movement in your novel or short story. Don’t set the scene. Don’t tell your reader that it’s a bright and sunny day or that a vehicle moves slowly.¹ Focus on a character and what he, she, or it is doing.

General Charles Vanlore FitzFey, the honorable Earl of Albios, watched the main entrance of the Salamander from a seat in the lobby. His twin brother was late, as usual. Probably the only time Peter had not been late was at the Battle of Brihuega, but that was close to seventy years ago. Charles tapped the arm of his chair. Every year, he swore that the next year he would impose himself on his children for his birthday celebration, rather than waiting around for his brother to show up for their mutual dinner.

Who is this about? Lord Albios. What is he doing? He’s waiting on his twin brother, watching for when Peter comes in. He’s impatient. And it’s obvious from this opening to the story that this happens every year. It’s obvious that the twins long ago established a tradition to celebrate their birthday together.

Who else is it about? Peter. We don’t know much more about him yet, other than that he is late everywhere he goes. We already know that this causes conflict between the brothers. Because this is a short story in a larger collection, the reader, by the time he or she comes to this story, will also recognize that one or both must be officers in the British Army because of the club he is waiting in.

Compare that to this:

The lobby of the Salamander had high ceilings. It was a comfortable club, established at the turn of the century by a group of British Army officers. Everyone who was anyone in the army was a member. There were thickly-upholstered leather chairs and couches, mostly in claret red, royal blue, or hunter green to match the uniforms of the men sprinkled around the large room. One man sat tapping the arm of his chair and watching the entrance of the club.

It’s the same scene. It’s the same story. But it’s a very different focus. Who is this about? Maybe this man tapping the arm of his chair? Or, maybe it’s about the club? Or maybe it’s about a group of army officers? What do we know about the mentioned man? Only that he’s tapping his fingers and watching the entrance. Is he waiting for someone? Is he waiting for the rain to stop outside? Is he just bored and deciding what he will do next? Does he have some other internal conflict bothering him? We’re already a paragraph in and know nothing about him or his motivations. We know more about the club than the man or his intentions or what this story is going to be about.

But the story isn’t about the club. It’s about the men. It’s about how a conversation between the brothers on their birthday sets a series of events in motion that changes their lives. It will never matter to the story what color the leather seats are in the Salamander. It will never matter when the club was founded.

As an author, you have to weed out what is and is not important to your reader. If some bit of background scenery is important to the plot, that’s fine. But if not, go by the rule of Chekhov’s Gun.

Chekhov’s Gun

If you haven’t been studying writing, you might not be familiar with Chekhov’s Gun. It has been stated several ways, but it comes down to, if you’re including details, make sure they are used. One formulation of the rule is, “If there is a pistol hanging on the wall in Act One, it gets used in Act Two.”

The Cessna skimmed in low over the pines.

If that were the opening of a story, both the plane and the pine trees had better be important to the story. Maybe the plane goes too low. Maybe the plane can land, but doesn’t have enough room to take off again due to the pines. Maybe the plane runs on a wood-burning steam engine. Still, it would be better to focus on the pilot or from the point of view of a character seeing it.

The Cessna skimmed in low over the pines. John looked up quickly to try to follow the motion of the plane and he felt something snap in his neck.

The second sentence makes it a whole different story. Maybe the Cessna will be used to get John to a hospital.

Whatever the case, if you’re mentioning the Cessna and pines, both should matter. If you’re mentioning them in your first sentence, they had better matter a lot.

Point-of-View Character

My last essay on amateur writers’ errors was about using the Point-of-View Character (POVC). In the first example above, Lord Albios is the POVC, at least of that section of the story. Other than the date, the first thing the reader sees is his name. As I said above, the best opening focuses on a character and what he is doing. Having that first character mentioned be the POVC helps the reader establish who this story is about, or at least who the first section is about.

In other words, by properly establishing a POVC instead of having an omniscient narrator (who knows the colors of the chairs and when the club was established), we make it much easier to create an opening line for the work/chapter/section. “POVC (is doing this).” Now, you won’t do this for every section. You will have some variety. Maybe you start out with the POVC’s speaking:

“Well, say that we did change the establishment, what you’re speaking of does not sound like a foot regiment to me. The Romans mixed foot and cavalry in their legions, but this is even more mixed up,” William said.

Now, that happens to be the beginning of a section where William is already established in the chapter, and had been the POVC in the previous section. We don’t have to re-establish that this particular William is His Royal Highness Prince William Henry, the Duke of Gloucester, since he’s the only William in the chapter.

But this brings up another point. In the opening line, use the name by which the character identifies himself. You can flesh out his or her full identity later.

Charley walked around his study with a glass of port in his hand. He paused at a northwestern window and admired the sunset. At this time of year, the sun was still setting quite late. He was lord of nearly all he surveyed. His study was the top floor of his tower house. Tower palace, really. He had added the additional floor after his wife had died. He had considered retiring and becoming a recluse at that point. Designing and supervising the construction of the study had occupied him for that summer, and he had had time to heal, to grieve, and by the autumn he had been ready to go back to Edinburgh, where he was bishop at the time.

We go forward a few paragraphs and find:

His father had been the one who had called him Charley. Nobody else ever had. He only called himself that internally. When he introduced himself, he would give his official name: Tarlych McTarlych, Duke of Lewis and Archbishop of Glasgow. It sounded as if he were someone important, but he was just another bastard of a king who had many.

For nearly a hundred years since his father died, nobody has ever called this character Charley, but it is how he thinks of himself. Tarlych is sometimes considered a Gaelic version of Charles or Charley, but his mother, his siblings, his wife, everyone except his father called him Tarlych or “Your Grace.” He is introduced to the reader from his point-of-view. It is only later that his real name, title, and occupation are revealed.

You may note that the first example I gave above didn’t do this, though:

General Charles Vanlore FitzFey, the honorable Earl of Albios, watched the main entrance of the Salamander from a seat in the lobby. His twin brother was late, as usual. Probably the only time Peter had not been late was at the Battle of Brihuega, but that was close to seventy years ago. Charles tapped the arm of his chair. Every year, he swore that the next year he would impose himself on his children for his birthday celebration, rather than waiting around for his brother to show up for their mutual dinner.

It appears that Lord Albios identifies as “Charles.” The reason for identifying him so thoroughly immediately is that there is another character named Charles who is in several chapters in this particular book. It’s important to establish right away that this new chapter is not about the other Charles, who is usually identified as “Sir Charles.” Because these stories are set in Great Britain in the Eighteenth Century, many people happen to be named for the last several kings: George, William (or William Henry), and Charles. (Not so many for James, though.) If your novel or story does not have so many characters with the same or similar names, you can start with how the character identifies himself. Fill in the background later, as was the case with Tarlych McTarlych above. Your main goal is to get things moving.

Let’s look back at John and the Cessna for a moment.

John heard the engine and looked up, searching the sky. After a moment the Cessna came skimming over the pines. Supplies from the big city. He nodded and changed his walking direction to the landing strip.

We don’t have an omniscient narrator describing the plane and the pines and the sun in the sky. We have a character who has needs.

Action and World-building and Background

With science fiction, fantasy, or historical novels, there may be quite a bit of what is referred to as world-building. There is a strong tendency to indulge in showing the world you have built as soon as possible to put the reader into the right frame of reference. Besides, all of the work you have done creating this new planet or this magic system or researching exactly what color the drapes were in Buckingham House in 1782, well, you want to get your money’s worth out of that work. You want to show it off to the reader like you might show your younger brother your hot, new sportscar. Take it out for a spin! Woohoo!

Do I need to say it? Big mistake. Your first goal is to engage the reader. Give him a character he or she can empathize with as the character is upset at work and trying to escape or waiting for that buck to take one more step out into the clearing or blowing off the side of a mountain as part of a mining operation or as he realizes he messed up and has to unravel three rows of that scarf he was knitting. Your world is (probably¹) not a character. It is background information. Keep it in the background. Reveal it as you go through the action. Don’t have an omniscient narrator describe it all upfront. The reader won’t remember all of those details. Don’t have your character think about what the rest of the building looks like. Have him walk through the building and see what it looks like.

Reuben looked around his sterile office and shook his head. He rose to go have a break. He entered the hallway with its painted lines on the floor to direct visitors to various departments and followed those lines as the hallway became a corridor with more lines coalescing from side hallways, a stream becoming a mighty river as it approached the sea of the lobby. He passed the main desk and went out the pneumatic doors, turning to the side where there was a small pad of concrete with seating next to the building. He felt his respirator kick on as he looked at the purple sky of noon. Most planets humans had settled, he reflected, one could breathe outside or a full body suit was needed to be out in the elements. Rinobertis was pleasant enough except for the oxygen level.

Compare that to something like:

Rinobertis was settled during the second great migration of humans into space after the development of the Juicyfruit Mentat Drive, which was much faster than the previous FTL² Drive developed by Scott Montgomery in the late Twenty-First Century after the Seventh Woke War had resulted in the Calumny Revolution, freeing people to be innovative once more. It was classified as a Type 6A planet, very Earth-like but requiring special survival apparatus. In the case of Rinobertis, the special survival apparatus is a respirator, because Rinobertis’ atmosphere has very little free oxygen. The particular geological conditions at the planet’s birth had locked up the oxygen in water and in rocks. While life had developed, it was not the same sort of life had that had freed the oxygen, leading to its own demise and the rise of more complex lifeforms that used oxygen.

These two opening paragraphs are exactly the same number of words. One gives you a character, tells you something about the character, tells you something about where he works, which seems at least vaguely hospital-like, and tells you a little about the planet he is on, which we can assume will be important later. The second version spews a bunch of information we’ll never need to know. Do we care about the planetary typing system and what 6A specifically means? Do we have to memorize all the other codes, too? Do we care when the planet was settled or what sort of drive was used to get there? Is it going to be important? Will there be a test later?

Now, maybe all of that information will be important, but bring it into the story closer to when it’s important. In the meantime, get your character or characters into the story and moving. They can move through the landscape and think about the technologies and worlds as they are moving through them. But skip the classification systems. They’re boring. Have you ever read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea? It’s much better as a movie because the movie doesn’t have list after list of sea flora and fauna dragging the story down.

Reveal the brilliance of your world-building as it supports the story, not in a core dump anywhere in your story. That distracts and bores the reader. It’s just the background scenery, not the story.

Summary and Questions

Your opening line is the most important part of any written work. It has to be inviting, making the reader want to continue. Action is better than ambiance. A character in action is best of all.

Any of you want to call me a doody-head over this?³ What is your experience of opening lines? What do you find draws you in? Do you have other ideas of what makes a good opening? What have you got for me, Ricochet?


Notes:

  1. As noted in the previous essay, there are exceptions to every rule. Maybe the vehicle mentioned is artificial intelligence and has a name? Maybe the planet is a very large alien?
  2. Stands for Fruit-of-The-Loom Drive, not Faster Than Light. Haven’t you ever heard of physics?
  3. My wife’s reaction was, “What about an opening line like, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’?” I told her, had I been the editor of Dickens, Twain, and many others, they’d have been much better writers.
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  1. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVeyJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    At the bottom of the stairs, I found what I’d dreaded I’d find, the headless body of a topless waitress. The Mob was playing for keeps this time. I shoved the loaded Colt into my waistband and staggered out the front door. “Come and get me, you (Code of Conduct non-compliant)s”. 

    • #1
    • September 18, 2020, at 1:58 AM PDT
    • 10 likes
  2. Andrew Miller Member

    Maybe sometimes rules are there to be danced with. Just as long as you don’t shoot yourself in the foot (probably with Chekhov’s Gun. I call it irresponsible to leave that thing laying around).

    • #2
    • September 18, 2020, at 2:16 AM PDT
    • 11 likes
  3. Arahant Member
    Arahant

    Andrew Miller (View Comment):
    Maybe sometimes rules are there to be danced with.

    Definitely. Especially as writers get more experienced.

    Andrew Miller (View Comment):
    Just as long as you don’t shoot yourself in the foot (probably with Chekhov’s Gun. I call it irresponsible to leave that thing laying around).

    That Chekhov guy was always trouble.

    • #3
    • September 18, 2020, at 2:26 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  4. CB Toder aka Mama Toad Member
    CB Toder aka Mama ToadJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Arahant: I told her, had I been the editor of Dickens, Twain, and many others, they’d have been much better writers.

    Would that you had been. In order to read A Tale of Two Cities for the first time, lo these many years ago, I eventually just skipped the first sentence entirely, for each time I had tried to get through it, I tossed the book aside in exasperation. If I hadn’t skipped it, I don’t think I would have been able to read the book.

    • #4
    • September 18, 2020, at 2:28 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  5. Arahant Member
    Arahant

    CB Toder aka Mama Toad (View Comment):

    Arahant: I told her, had I been the editor of Dickens, Twain, and many others, they’d have been much better writers.

    Would that you had been. In order to read A Tale of Two Cities for the first time, lo these many years ago, I eventually just skipped the first sentence entirely, for each time I had tried to get through it, I tossed the book aside in exasperation. If I hadn’t skipped it, I don’t think I would have been able to read the book.

    I read it in junior high, long before I had developed a critical eye. Back then, I would read anything.

    • #5
    • September 18, 2020, at 2:32 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  6. Arahant Member
    Arahant

    This is part of the September Group Writing Project, with the theme: If I was a —, I would —. If you have a condition that’s feeling mighty conditional, or perhaps you’re subjuncting here and there in your life, why not follow that link and sign up. I believe there are eight dates left.

    • #6
    • September 18, 2020, at 2:35 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  7. CB Toder aka Mama Toad Member
    CB Toder aka Mama ToadJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    CB Toder aka Mama Toad (View Comment):

    Arahant: I told her, had I been the editor of Dickens, Twain, and many others, they’d have been much better writers.

    Would that you had been. In order to read A Tale of Two Cities for the first time, lo these many years ago, I eventually just skipped the first sentence entirely, for each time I had tried to get through it, I tossed the book aside in exasperation. If I hadn’t skipped it, I don’t think I would have been able to read the book.

    I read it in junior high, long before I had developed a critical eye. Back then, I would read anything.

    It was seventh grade for me. I went to a parochial school til high school.

    I too would read anything, including a tube of toothpaste. But I could not get past that paragraph.

    • #7
    • September 18, 2020, at 2:46 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  8. Arahant Member
    Arahant

    CB Toder aka Mama Toad (View Comment):
    I too would read anything, including a tube of toothpaste. But I could not get past that paragraph.

    I’m almost thinking it would be fun to go back and reread some of those classics just so I could rewrite them better. 😈

    • #8
    • September 18, 2020, at 2:49 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  9. Arahant Member
    Arahant

    (And, yes, there is a whole lot of hubris in that. Luckily, I’m lazy, so won’t put in that much effort when I have other books to finish writing.)

    • #9
    • September 18, 2020, at 2:56 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  10. Flicker Coolidge

    How about:

    “Zoom” went the spaceship in the silence of space. The engine throbbled and wheezed like choked panthers as Captain Rhobards turned the throttle towards the limit. “Wheeze!” went the last drop of liquid energy out of the energy tanks, as the ship entered atmosphere and shuddered. He had never meant for this. The craft was twenty thousand feet above M-World, and heating up fast. He blew the hatch and pulled at his parachute. This is going to be a long fall, he thought. But, orders is orders.

    Linda Lane waited four miles below. Jason was late — again. He never kept an appointment. All he was good at was just dropping in. As she rose to leave the room shattered with the impact. Glass shot everywhere. And a loud “thump” came from the floor behind her. Slowly Linda turned around and there lay the still body of her escort. His parachute was wrapped around his flight suit. It had never opened. Jaysson Rhobards was dead. And he was late. “Get up!” she shouted, “and take me to dinner!”

    Slowly life flowed back into his lifeless body. And sooner still his head twisted up to look at her. He smiled sillily and he pointed one limp finger at his wristwatch. “I’m not late,” he said.

    This is the story of how Jaysson Rhobards got to this time and spot.

    ***

    Is this a good opening? Do you want to know the whole story?

    • #10
    • September 18, 2020, at 3:12 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
    • This comment has been edited.
  11. Arahant Member
    Arahant

    Flicker (View Comment):
    Is this a good opening?

    Well, it does have action, I must say. Sounds a bit on the light side.

    Flicker (View Comment):
    Do you want to know the whole story?

    Maybe.

    • #11
    • September 18, 2020, at 3:19 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  12. Arahant Member
    Arahant

    I used to read a lot of Ron Goulart and Tom Holt and Douglas Adams.

    • #12
    • September 18, 2020, at 3:22 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  13. Flicker Coolidge

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Flicker (View Comment):
    Is this a good opening?

    Well, it does have action, I must say. Sounds a bit on the light side.

    Flicker (View Comment):
    Do you want to know the whole story?

    Maybe.

    Actually, that’s far better reaction that I expected. Thanks.

    I guess I’ll finish it then.

    • #13
    • September 18, 2020, at 3:23 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
    • This comment has been edited.
  14. Doctor Robert Member

    Well, Call me Ishmael.

    • #14
    • September 18, 2020, at 3:41 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  15. SpiritO'78 Member

    I don’t write fiction but I imagine non-fiction (or blog stuff) follows a similar pattern, don’t bore the reader? 

    • #15
    • September 18, 2020, at 6:45 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  16. Arahant Member
    Arahant

    SpiritO'78 (View Comment):

    I don’t write fiction but I imagine non-fiction (or blog stuff) follows a similar pattern, don’t bore the reader?

    That is correct. Do what I say, not what I do. 😁

    • #16
    • September 18, 2020, at 8:21 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  17. Arahant Member
    Arahant

    Doctor Robert (View Comment):

    Well, Call me Ishmael.

    It is distinctive and easy to remember.

    • #17
    • September 18, 2020, at 8:22 AM PDT
    • Like
  18. Percival Thatcher
    PercivalJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Roger Zelazny pulled it off in Nine Princes in Amber. The narrator recovers from a coma in a hospital bed suffering from amnesia. You find out who he is as he does.

    • #18
    • September 18, 2020, at 8:28 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  19. Hoyacon Member

    I came up with this to introduce a character in the opening:

    Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and razor crossed.

    Unfortunately, I’m now pretty much stuck.

    • #19
    • September 18, 2020, at 11:15 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
    • This comment has been edited.
  20. Arahant Member
    Arahant

    Hoyacon (View Comment):

    I came up with this to introduce a character in the opening:

    Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and razor crossed.

    Unfortunately, I’m now pretty much stuck.

    Does he trip? Does he shave someone? Male or female? So many possibilities.

    • #20
    • September 18, 2020, at 12:53 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  21. Hoyacon Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Hoyacon (View Comment):

    I came up with this to introduce a character in the opening:

    Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and razor crossed.

    Unfortunately, I’m now pretty much stuck.

    Does he trip? Does he shave someone? Male or female? So many possibilities.

    You know, I’m thinking if I make the rest more or less incomprehensible, somebody’s bound to think I’m a genius. I need a female character who’s kind of promiscuous though.

    • #21
    • September 18, 2020, at 2:15 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  22. Clifford A. Brown Contributor

    Ricochet members, try out these tips in your own post. Don’t be shy, step up and join the conversation this month, playing off September’s theme “If I was a —, I would —.” 

    Interested in Group Writing topics that came before? See the handy compendium of monthly themes. Check out links in the Group Writing Group. You can also join the group to get a notification when a new monthly theme is posted.

    • #22
    • September 18, 2020, at 5:57 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  23. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron MillerJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    CB Toder aka Mama Toad (View Comment):

    Arahant: I told her, had I been the editor of Dickens, Twain, and many others, they’d have been much better writers.

    Would that you had been. In order to read A Tale of Two Cities for the first time, lo these many years ago, I eventually just skipped the first sentence entirely, for each time I had tried to get through it, I tossed the book aside in exasperation. If I hadn’t skipped it, I don’t think I would have been able to read the book.

    Granted. But what’s the point of a free market if everyone writes the same way?

    There’s a lot of good advice here. But I was always more than a little annoyed to have learned Twain and Poe only to be instructed to write like Hemingway. 

    As a Southerner, I reserve the right to casually meander around a subject and lean upon the scene in artful detail until the moment something bites the reader from behind. It serves the reader right for trying to game out my plot like a cheap murder mystery!

    • #23
    • September 18, 2020, at 7:53 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  24. Arahant Member
    Arahant

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):
    As a Southerner, I reserve the right to casually meander around a subject and lean upon the scene in artful detail until the moment something bites the reader from behind. It serves the reader right for trying to game out my plot like a cheap murder mystery!

    Have I said you should have a direct plot? No. My advice so far has been that when you are writing fiction, you should:

    • Have discipline about using point-of-view characters, and
    • Have a strong opening. (Applies to non-fiction, too.)

    There is a lot of leeway as to what that means in both.

    If you want a complex plot, great. It makes it more fun. Throw in some red herrings? Terrific. Want to be downright convoluted? Know your market. Some folks do like that sort of thing. Want to write like Faulkner? Or, want to write like Hemingway? Either one is a big mistake. Write like yourself. Find your voice. Or, find your voice for that work, which may actually be a character’s voice.

    And, of course, rules are meant to be broken. But learn the rules and why they’re there, so you’ll figure out how to break the rules successfully. On the other hand, successful sales do not indicate you have broken the rules successfully. You may be driving your readers half crazy with breaking certain rules, but everything else is good enough or interesting enough that they try to overlook it.

    • #24
    • September 19, 2020, at 12:46 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  25. ToryWarWriter Thatcher

    Whenever I am stuck, someone busts down the front door of the room and starts shooting up the place with a shot gun. It works every time.

    • #25
    • September 19, 2020, at 5:13 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  26. Arahant Member
    Arahant

    ToryWarWriter (View Comment):

    Whenever I am stuck, someone busts down the front door of the room and starts shooting up the place with a shot gun. It works every time.

    That sounds like a plan. I started on your novella. I got to the point where the bomb went off. Now I know what comes next. Someone breaks down the door of the cabin and starts shooting. 😁

    • #26
    • September 19, 2020, at 5:16 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  27. Hank Rhody, Freelance Philosop… Contributor

    Arahant: But this brings up another point. In the opening line, use the name by which the character identifies himself. You can flesh out his or her full identity later.

    What do you do for a first person point of view? Do you leave the name out until he gets around to talking to someone a couple paragraphs down, or do you try to slip it in like zucchini into spaghetti sauce?

    “I, Walton Hughes, being of sound mind and body…”

    • #27
    • September 19, 2020, at 10:09 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  28. Hank Rhody, Freelance Philosop… Contributor

    While this is good advice, and I agree very much about the general point, I think you should get one line’s grace for poetry. To set the mood. You can’t waste it.

    “This is bad. Real bad.”
    Jessica normally isn’t the unflappable type, so I didn’t take her assessment too literally until I leaned over her shoulder and read the one-word email. “Goodbye”. At that, I added one word of my own in agreement, a word I’m not going to repeat here.
    “What are we going to do?” Good question. But she’s looking to me for an answer and, Lord help me, I can’t disappoint those big brown eyes.
    “We do what we can. We fight. We stop stop them.”

    Maybe that doesn’t count; starting on dialogue has an inherent energy to it. Try another one:

    It was a wild day, a windy day. On these days a restless energy possesses your legs. You pace about your office, picking up one project to drop it in supreme frustration a moment later. You settle down to read a thing, only to bound back to your feet a moment later. It’s impossible to think on such days, especially if you’re paid to think. Me, I’m not paid to think, I’m merely an adjunct professor.

    I guess, looking back at this now, it’s describing the state of mind the character is in, it’s action after “On these days”. These are both preexisting snippets of things that I started writing and threw down in frustration shortly thereafter.

    • #28
    • September 19, 2020, at 10:28 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  29. Hank Rhody, Freelance Philosop… Contributor

    CB Toder aka Mama Toad (View Comment):

    Arahant: I told her, had I been the editor of Dickens, Twain, and many others, they’d have been much better writers.

    Would that you had been. In order to read A Tale of Two Cities for the first time, lo these many years ago, I eventually just skipped the first sentence entirely, for each time I had tried to get through it, I tossed the book aside in exasperation. If I hadn’t skipped it, I don’t think I would have been able to read the book.

    That’s a shame. I would suggest going back and trying it again. It’s a perfect description of media culture. 

    Not to say that Dickens couldn’t have stood some editing.

    • #29
    • September 19, 2020, at 10:31 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  30. SParker Member

    Hank Rhody, Freelance Philosop… (View Comment):

    CB Toder aka Mama Toad (View Comment):

    Arahant: I told her, had I been the editor of Dickens, Twain, and many others, they’d have been much better writers.

    Would that you had been. In order to read A Tale of Two Cities for the first time, lo these many years ago, I eventually just skipped the first sentence entirely, for each time I had tried to get through it, I tossed the book aside in exasperation. If I hadn’t skipped it, I don’t think I would have been able to read the book.

    That’s a shame. I would suggest going back and trying it again. It’s a perfect description of media culture.

    Not to say that Dickens couldn’t have stood some editing.

    It would have been money out of his pocket. He mostly got paid by the word. “Sing, Muse, the wrath of Achilles.” leads but to the poorhouse. Which he was never that big on.

    My suggestion would be to work really hard on not being dull. Study the masters. I just looked at the openings of Lolita, The Third Policeman, The Jungle Book, and two stories by Heinrich von Kleist (“The Earthquake in Chile” and “The Marquise of O”). They have in common that they are to the point (in their on way) and spectacularly not dull. (Warning: the attempt not to be dull, like drinking, may lead to nocturnal embarrassments and pre-lunch self-loathing. Have a trashcan handy, even after you think you’ve got the hang of the thing.)

    • #30
    • September 19, 2020, at 11:26 AM PDT
    • 4 likes