Saturday, 21 May 2016

Better Writing - Started To/Begin To/Decided To – Why You Should Avoid These

Better writing comes with knowledge and experience; it helps writers make the right adjustments to their writing. Knowing what to adjust and what to look out for comes through the apprenticeship of writing, by making mistakes and learning from them.
One of the things to look out for is the habit of using ‘started to/begin to/decided to’ in descriptions with characters. It’s one of those constructions that look perfectly normal within your narrative, yet it doesn’t make for good writing.  Of course, we’ve all done it as beginners, so no one is immune or perfect. It’s not that it’s inherently wrong, but rather that it’s good practice not to do it – it helps writers improve and strengthen their writing.
Why should you avoid these constructions?
Started to/Began to
The thing to remember is that writing should always be active, so when a character decides to do something or starts to do something, the writing quickly turns clumsy and instantly stops being ‘active’, for example:
She started to get up and her legs felt weary.
He began to dig where he thought the box was hidden.
The heat rose and she began to unbutton her shirt.
At first glance, there doesn’t appear anything wrong with these sentences, but a closer look reveals the awkward structure. Don’t have characters ‘start to’ or ‘decide to’ or ‘begin to’ do something – simply have them do it, for example:
She got up and her legs felt weary.
He dug where he thought the box was hidden.
The heat rose and she unbuttoned her shirt.
Notice that these examples are much better – they’re active, they are a much tighter construction and so they avoid being clunky or awkward. They get straight to the point. This makes for better writing, always.
Decided to
This is another one that, on the surface, looks fine, but doesn’t do much for the sentence structure. We all decide to do things – we decide to make a coffee, we decide to go for a walk, we decide to go to bed – but within fiction,  a decision isn’t actually an action, it’s a thought, but writers still make the mistake of trying to make it an action, for example:
He decided to head towards the bar.
She glanced up at the sun, decided to put on her sunglasses.
He decided to turn right.
These examples may not look that bad, but they are not actions and should not be construed as actions. They are thoughts. A decision is a thought.
These kinds of constructions almost always render the narrative passive. If written correctly, they would be as follows:
He headed towards the bar.
She glanced up at the sun and put on her sunglasses.
He turned right.
These are much tighter, they’re active and they get straight to the point.
There is an exception with having a character ‘decide to’ do something, and that happens if you are writing from a character’s POV, when you are using interior dialogue. This means you are directly describing his or her thoughts, so a character deciding to do something is actually relevant, for example:
He realised he couldn’t move the steel girders. He sat in the darkness for a moment, thought about his options. He decided to turn back and head towards the upper floor.
This structure is acceptable because rather than it being an actual action, the character, whose POV is being represented, is going through a thought process and then decides on an action. The interior thoughts show the reader what is happening, so in this case, it’s correct use. Remember, a decision is a thought process, not an action.
There are many ways a writer can make their writing better. Remember to keep the narrative active and aim for strong sentence structures. You can do this by weeding out any instances of ‘started to’, began to’ or ‘decided to’.  If the character has to do something, simply have the character do it.

Next week: Better writing – how to start and end chapters

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Getting Your Story to Flow

Getting any story to flow is a common problem that all writers face from time to time and there are numerous reasons behind why it sometimes proves difficult to get the narrative to work and make sure it stays that way.
When a story does flow, that’s when a writer is really focused and ‘in the zone’. It means that the words just keep flowing and the writer has to write until the scene or chapter is completed. Some people keep going until tiredness sets in. Creativity is at a peak; thoughts and ideas come naturally and seem so effortless.
But then there are other times when nothing much happens and the flow of the story stutters and seems more of a chore than an enjoyable experience.
When we think of ‘flow’, it’s the seamless quality of the story that matters.  When a story doesn’t flow, then there are problems either with the narrative/story or the approach used by the writer.
Stories should flow smoothly; the writing should come easily, however sometimes this is far from the case.  The process can sometimes be anything but smooth, and it’s one of those things that doesn’t magically appear at the click of the fingers – writers have to work very hard to establish it and maintain it.
Creating flow, however, is down to technique and a bit of experience.
Things that Affect Story Flow
There’s no getting around it, but bad writing really does affect the flow. Bad sentence structures, poor grammar, lack of clarity, no description and poor dialogue can disrupt the course of the story and put the reader off. There is little flow, if at all.
Contrived and stilted writing doesn’t help, either. This happens when writers try too hard. The thing to remember is that you’re not out to impress readers with fancy words or overly complicated sentences, but rather to entertain them with an amazing story told as effectively as possible. Leave the fancy words and the complex sentences to those who are masters of it.
Wrongly formatted dialogue can inhibit story flow. Learn how to set out dialogue correctly, with correct punctuation, and make it pertinent and punchy so that it engages the reader instead of confusing them because they’re unsure who is doing the talking or the action.
Huge chunks of narrative or boring description can bring the story flow to a full stop. Readers don’t have much patience, so when faced with overly long paragraphs, they tend to switch off. Info dumps don’t help the story in any way. That said, not all huge blocks of description will necessarily impede story flow. Written properly, larger sections of well written description, balanced with narrative and dialogue, actually help the flow of the story. The art is not to overdo them – every descriptive passage has its place.
Unless you are deliberately writing a story out of sequence (for dramatic effect, for instance) make sure that you write the story in the correct order of events that run parallel to the plot. In other words, the story starts at a crucial moment and moves along a timeline in chronological order, with one event or incident leading up to another until the exciting conclusion of the story. That way, the story won’t confuse the reader, but more importantly, the entire flow of the story is linear, logical and smooth.
Other aspects that can mess with the story flow are the choice of chapter or scene breaks. By their very nature, they break the flow of the story, but they do so briefly and seamlessly, with good effect. It’s important that you don’t pop a scene break in the middle of an important scene. That will kill the flow instantly and ruin any emotion, tone, mood or atmosphere you’ve created, and thus interrupt the reader’s focus.
Carefully place your scene breaks and chapters. If done correctly, the reader will barely notice a deliberate break in the flow that is also essential for it to continue.
Ways to ensure the story flows:

  • Make sure you have a plan to work to – you’ll know roughly where you’re going and what will happen. This helps to avoid writers block and the inevitable struggle to force the writing.
  • Plot points – these are essential in order to keep narrative momentum. Make sure you plot your story.
  • Make sure you know the important turning points in the story, i.e. the key incidents that cause twists and turns to keep the reader on the edge of their seat.
  • Ensure dialogue is correctly formatted. Keep it pertinent and punchy.
  • Don’t overcomplicate sentences or go with obscure or fancy words. Keep it simple and clear.
  • Keep the narrative, description and dialogue balanced. Avoid info dumps and huge blocks of narrative.
  • Always try to escalate the action. The more in escalates, the more tension, conflict and excitement you create, so the story flow should be effortless.
  • Keep your story events in order – it’s easier for the reader to follow.
  • Choose your scene breaks and chapter breaks carefully. Try to end each one on a mini cliff hanger to ensure the reader stays glued to the story.

If you really want to know if your story flows, then read it aloud. You will soon learn if it stutters, pauses, drags, meanders and so on. If it flows properly, you should be able to read it without hesitation or pause. It simply works. Words flow. Sentences flow. Paragraphs flow. In fact, the entire book flows.
Story flow is down to technique and having a feel for the entire story. Take the time and don’t rush the process and the story flow will come naturally.

Next week: Better writing – Begin to/started to/decided to – why you should avoid these.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Run-on Sentences – Good or bad?

Many writers may not be familiar with ‘run on sentences’, or what they mean, but plenty of writers inadvertently end up using them from time to time, while other writers actively discourage their use.
So what, exactly, are they?
A run-on is a sentence is made up of two or more independent clauses ( a complete sentence) that are joined together without punctuation (i.e. semicolons, colons, dashes or full stops) or a conjunction (i.e. for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so etc).
Run-on sentences happen very easily and all writers have unintentionally used them when in the furious throes of writing, particularly if focused on the first draft, which is always full of countless errors and flaws. It’s at the editing stage where the errors are put right, including run-on sentences.
Fortunately, the run on sentence is easy to spot and just as easy to correct. They are very noticeable when read back through your work, because they make the narrative flow of sentences look odd, for example:
He realised he had missed the train he knew he couldn’t miss the interview.
She eyed him with suspicion she knew he was lying.
He heard the rush of the explosion behind him he ran to the car.
The sunset spread across the sky it flooded the landscape with a hazy hue.
Each example shows how the sentence falters at the point that there should be an independent clause. They are considered grammatically incorrect because of the clumsy sentence structures they create. Run on sentences don’t just weaken the narrative, they also don’t read very well.
So, how do you put them right once you’ve discovered them?
Because the structure is made up of two or more independent clauses without punctuation, then it’s a matter of putting the punctuation where it belongs. Let’s look at the above examples again, but this time, to avoid the run-on structures, the correct punctuation is in place:
He realised he had missed the train, but he knew he couldn’t miss the interview.
She eyed him with suspicion. She knew he was lying.
He heard the rush of the explosion behind him and he ran to the car.
The sunset spread across the sky. It flooded the landscape with a hazy hue.
Now the sentences read more smoothly, they make sense and are no longer clunky. The independent clauses help the sentences make sense and they are much tighter and concise by comparison to the run-on sentence structures.
There is another variation of the run-on sentence that, while considered grammatically erroneous, they are considered as acceptable within fiction writing, and they are known as Comma Splices.
The Comma Splice
A comma splice is when two independent clauses are connected by a comma, rather than the correct conjunction (and, or, but, for etc) or punctuation. The examples below are comma splices:
The rain was hammering down, he shut the window.
Dave picked up the shovel, opened the shed door.
John obviously knew what she meant, he was an intuitive person.
While some sentences can look a bit awkward – writing relies on our judgement a lot of the time – and certainly the first one is awkward, but the other two are not too bad.  They are easily correct with the right conjunction (or punctuation), for example:
The rain was hammering down. He shut the window.
Dave picked up the shovel, and opened the shed door.
John obviously knew what she meant; he was an intuitive person.
Comma splices are very common, but unlike some aspects of writing that cause bad sentence structures, such as adverbial or adjectival sentences, comma splices are not as terrible if they are used solely for effect from time to time. They don’t weaken the narrative half as much as adverbs, poorly placed participles or adjectives. In fact, they can heighten the sense of pace.
The intended meaning of a sentence isn’t changed by their appearance, and while some may see them as grammatically incorrect, comma splices do have a small role in effective narrative, none more so than when writing is restricted by the amount of words, such as short stories and flash fiction. They’re exceptionally useful for cutting out extraneous conjunctions, moving the narrative along and keeping to strict word limits.
In essence, run-on sentences are grammatically incorrect and should be avoided, and they are considered a bad thing.  That said, the odd comma splice is acceptable; plenty of established and famous writers like to use them. The thing to remember is not to overuse them.
Next week: Getting your story to flow.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Which or That – Does it Matter?

As a continuation of the theme from last week on common word confusions, this one would probably top the chart. ‘That’ or ‘which’ has driven many writers crazy because of the similarity in meaning of these words. Not only that, but most of the confusion arises because it’s become widely accepted that they are interchangeable rather than grammatically incorrect, so the question is: does it really matter?
In the grand scheme of things, no, since their use has for many years become skewed by writers, and as already stated, either one is now accepted in literary circles and in British English, but for clarity and simplicity, there are differences between them and they do have different functions.
So what are these differences? First of all, both ‘Which’ and ‘that’ are pronouns.  We use pronouns to present a relative clause. A relative clause starts with the relative pronouns which, who, that, whose, when or where, and are often used to join two sentences. They are also used to identify the noun that precedes them, for example:
The walls are blue, which is not the right colour. (Blue is the noun)
Did you see the boy who climbed the tree? (Boy is the noun)
I need the screwdriver that I gave you a few moments ago. (Screwdriver is the noun)
We visited the glassblower, whose skills are amazing. (Glassblower is the noun)
That photo was taken when we went to the zoo. (Taken is a noun)
We went to the supermarket where I saw those shoes. (Supermarket is the noun)
‘Which’ refers to things/objects; however, ‘that’ refers to both things/objects and also refers to people, which is why it causes so much confusion, for example:
The shoes that she bought looked good.
The shoes, which she bought, looked good.
Both these samples look fine, and they’re both correct. But there is a difference between them, and that is because one is a restrictive clause and the other is non-restrictive.
Restrictive and Non-Restrictive Clauses
Both of the examples above are correct, however the use of ‘that’ in the first sentence introduces a restrictive clause. Restrictive clauses limit the meaning or nuance of sentences, hence the name. The restrictive clause reduces the first example to a simple statement, because ‘that’ is restrictive.
The second sentence contains ‘which’. This is known as a non-restrictive sentence. In other words, unlike ‘that’, the non-restrictive sentence provides a little more information, but it doesn’t limit the intended meaning of the sentence, but instead it alters the context slightly. The big difference between both examples is that in the non-restrictive use, ‘which’ is preceded with a comma (or enclosed by commas).
Let’s look again at the examples:
The shoes that she bought looked good.
The shoes, which she bought, looked good.
While these two sentences look almost identical, they’re different because the first example tells us that the woman brought some shoes – objects/things – and they looked good. It’s a statement; it’s restrictive.
The second example, which contains the non-restrictive clause, puts emphasis on the fact that she bought the shoes, so in a sense it provides more information, despite the fact that it’s more or less the same sentence. In other words, the context has changed.
If the clause is removed from the sentence, the meaning doesn’t actually change, just the context, so it simply has less information:
The shoes looked good.
Here’s another simple example, the kind of thing you’d find in any narrative. Notice the restrictive and non-restrictive clauses and the way they help the sentence meaning and change the context:
The books that she’d placed there earlier had gone.
The books, which she had placed there earlier, had gone.
Again, if we remove the both restrictive and non-restrictive elements, you’re left with a simple sentence:
The books had gone.
Writers spend a lot of time worrying over which word to use when they’re writing description, so knowing the differences between these two words makes things so much easier.
The examples below show how ‘that’ and ‘which’ should be used.
He opened his eyes to the shifting dusk that cloaked his tiny bedroom. (Restrictive clause)
Clouds swirled like thick, sulphur-tinted dust clouds that choked the sullen corridors in his mind. (Restrictive clause)
Every day they piled them onto waiting carts, which were then transported to area outside town, known as the Death Fields. (Non-restrictive clause)
She tied string around a muslin cloth, which enclosed some cheese, bread and smoked meat for their lunch. (Non-restrictive clause)
Once writers understand ‘that’ and ‘which’ better, there shouldn’t be any confusion over which one to use, or when.
Next week: Run-on Sentences – Acceptable or not?

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Common Word Confusions

There are plenty of words that confuse writers – some are obvious, some less so – but they’re part of a large group of words that make us stumble from time to time, and that’s because none of us is perfect. 
There are plenty of reasons why confusions arise. Some are caused by the English language having more than one meaning for a word – like chord and cord, while others cause hesitation because they sound and look the same but have different meanings. Writers just have to learn the differences and be able to spot them when editing.
It’s or Its
Let’s start with the most obvious – It’s versus its.  There is a very simple way to differentiate between the two. One is a contraction of ‘it is’ and the other is a possessive pronoun (belonging to or of), for example:
It’s a lovely day. (Contraction of it is a lovely day.)
The dog wagged its tail. (Possessive pronoun – the tail belongs to the dog).
Lie or Lay
You can lie down or tell a lie and you can lay (an object) down. These types of verbs confuse writers because often they mix lie and lay, depending whether they are writing in the past or present tense.
Lay and lie are verbs used in the present tense. The thing to remember about ‘lie’ and ‘lay’ is that ‘lay’ requires an object, but ‘lie’ does not. It does not require a direct object, therefore we don’t actually lay down, we lie down.  We don’t lie down a book on the table; we lay down a book on the table. So, for example:
I think I might lie down.
There is no object associated with the verb, so the correct use is ‘lie’. In the present tense, the word ‘lay’ means to put something (an object) down, for example:
I will lay the weapon on the table.
In this case, the object of the sentence is the weapon, which the character lays on the table. So far, so straightforward...
If you are writing in the past tense, however, then ‘lie’ becomes ‘lay’, for example:
He lay down and slept.
I lay awake.
And this is where writers come unstuck - the past tense of ‘lay’ becomes ‘laid’, for example:
He laid down the weapon.
She laid down the rules for them.
It’s also worth remembering that ‘laid’ is also the past participle of ‘lay’, and ‘lain’ is the past participle of lie, for example:
He had laid down the weapon.
She had lain down yesterday morning.
And of course, one last thing to note is ‘laid’ is often confused with the act of reclining. ‘He laid back’, for instance, is incorrect. It should be ‘He lay back.’ (Past tense of lie).
It’s understandable why ‘Lie’ and ‘Lay’ cause no end of confusion, but writers should try to learn the differences.
Sat or Sitting
This is another one that catches a lot of writers out and drives plenty of us crazy. But again, it’s all to do with tenses and sentence constructions.  
Writers often write something like this: ‘She was sat at the bus stop waiting for the bus.’
It looks okay, but ‘sat’ in this case is the past participle of the verb sit. While it might look fine to most people, grammatically it is incorrect. The correct form should be, ‘She was sitting at the bus stop waiting for the bus.’ And that’s because it shows the past continuous tense – in other words, in this example the act of sitting is a continuous action. More examples of past continuous tense:
She was sitting at her desk when the phone rang.
She was sitting by the bar when he walked in.
The simple past tense version of the bus stop example would be ‘She sat down and waited for the bus.’ This denotes a completed action, not a continuous one. More examples:
He sat down beside her.
She sat at the bar.
Accept or Except
This one fools writers because although they sound the same, they actually have different meanings.
The word ‘Accept’, which is a verb, has many different meanings, for instance it means to receive something, admit to something or consent to something, for example:
I accept your invitation.
He accepted the gift.
I accept I did wrong. I accept your position.
‘Except’, on the other hand has different meanings, as well as different functions. It can mean apart from, with the exception of or excluding, and it can be used as a conjunction or a preposition, for example:
It went well, except for the mishap with the broom.
The cars were all there, except mine.
She had everything except the passport.
Again, it’s all about learning about the differences between these words and knowing which one to correctly choose for your narrative.
Affect or Effect
They sound the same and with the exception of one letter, they look the same, but that’s where the similarity ends.
The word ‘Affect’ is a verb.  It means to change or influence something, to have an effect on something, usually emotionally, for example:
The loss of the house affected her badly.
He was affected after losing the game.
Effect, on the other hand is both a noun and a verb and it means to cause something to happen or as a result or consequence.
The new policies won’t effect change.
The freshly ground coffee had a positive effect on his mood.
There’s a reason why these two words are high up on the confusion list. The similarity they share fools writers into thinking they’ve chosen the correct word, when in fact they have used the wrong one. Again, it’s important to learn the differences and meanings.
If in doubt, consult a grammar book.
I’ve deliberately left out the top two words that confuse writers – That and Which – because there is so much to explain and these deserve an entire post dedicated to it...

Next week: Which or That – Does it matter?

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Focusing on Small Details Can Count

When we think about detail, we tend to think big and bold, and the lush, beautiful descriptions that teem with colour and visual prompts; the kind of thing that should fill a novel, but while these details help make a story, it’s often the smaller details that give it that extra dimension. That’s because sometimes we notice smaller details more than we do huge detail. It may be that our brains are wired to notice these thing.
Writing is no different – minute details can add to the narrative in a subtle way which still enhances the story.
So what kinds of detail make a difference?
The devil really is in the detail. How you create that detail is up to you, but the effect you can create with it is the key to good fiction, because the correct balance of detail – from the biggest detail to the smallest, goes a long way to help make the story memorable rather than forgettable.
Many writers forget the small detail, simply because they assume small details don’t matter, but in the grand scheme of things, they actually do matter. The small details do more than highlight a splinter of information that the reader might otherwise overlook, they actually have many functions, because unlike huge swathes of detail, we use the small details to provoke the reader’s senses – the olfactory, auditory, gustatory, kinaesthetic and the visual.
The sense of smell – although in reality the reader cannot possibly smell anything in written a book, small details within the description allow their senses to imagine it. So the strong earthy aroma of coffee from a cafĂ©, the sweetness of honeysuckle on the breeze or the hint of freshly cut grass – they all help the reader visualise the scene. Not only that, but olfactory details takes them from the ordinary into the extraordinary; it creates a sense of atmosphere and mood and nostalgia, because the one thing we all know is true - imagining certain smells can evoke different memories, especially ones from our childhood.
If you can evoke these moods and feelings within your reader, you also create a connection, a sense of immediacy.
Again, when reading, the reader can’t physically hear anything other the words in their mind, so it’s up to the writer to help the reader hear all that is going on, and in some scenes small details can go a long way. For instance, the constant drip of a tap in the distance can create atmosphere. Or what about the gentle hum of rain on a roof? What mood could it create? The rustle of leaves. The sound of someone breathing...or whispers.
They’re all small details on their own which can create greater detail in context to the entire scene. The greater the detail in this sense, the greater the reaction you invoke in your reader.
Food is one of those things writers tend to forget about – completely. They forget that their protagonist hasn’t eaten for days on end in the novel, or they forget that the protagonist is superhuman and doesn’t actually need food (or the bathroom, for that matter). How many of your characters go through life changing events and yet never stop to actually eat anything or go to the bathroom?
Of course, a scene doesn’t always require that the character is eating to describe different scents, but small sensory details that hint at aromas can help build a scene for the reader.
Gustatory details can be something as simple as describing the sweetness of sugar on a pancake, or the sour taste of medicine, or maybe the tingling freshness of mint. And surprisingly, gustatory detail can also evoke nostalgic memories for readers.
Kinaesthetic refers to the physical – the sense of touch, what the character feels when he touches something.  Not only that but it also refers to external stimulation such as the heat of the sun on the face, the feeling of a fly on the hand, the feel of water around the body when we’re swimming.
This type of detail is especially effective when in character POV, where the reader is privy to the main character’s thoughts and feelings, so the writer can explore the feel of someone else’s skin in an intimate scene for example, or the feel of cool raindrops during a stormy scene. Or perhaps it could describe the fierceness of the sun’s heat in desolate landscape.
Little details like this add the realism of your scenes, because the reader will know what these sensations feel like and they will attribute a memory to it, this creating that all important connection and sense of immediacy.
The most obvious detail that writers use is the visual. There are so many details that can evoke a huge range of imagery for the reader that the visual encompasses so many things, because the visual is virtually all description.
But it’s the detail that counts. Small details can sometimes be symbolic, and symbolism plays an important role in writing. That detail could anything, like a colour, or a certain flower. Perhaps it’s starkness of a landscape, or the darkness of an abandoned building. It can be absolutely anything.
Details create more than background information. They can provide the reader with sensory snippets which, in turn, can create a virtual landscape in the reader’s mind.  
The beauty of such details is that you don’t have to overdo them – not every scene requires pages of luscious and rich description.  It’s all about subtlety. Let the details stand out in smaller scenes; make the reader notice certain things, make them think, make them wonder, but above all, make them visualise.

Next week: Common word confusions

Saturday, 2 April 2016

The Art of Captivating First Lines

Do you really need to have captivating first lines? The simple answer to that is there are no rules that say you have to, but the reason writers look for captivating first lines is not only to grab the reader’s attention, but also to maintain it.

Great opening lines can do that because they have the power to lure and entice the reader, to spark their imagination, to compel them and intrigue them. It makes them want to read the whole story, not just the opening line.

Stephen King said of them: “An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story”.

There are plenty of writers who ignore the concept of a captivating first line and instead launch into lots of unnecessary narrative (info dump) or they overload with backstory in the belief the reader needs all this information to understand what the story is about, but the opposite is true. Less is more.

So what makes a captivating first line?

It’s one that effortlessly leads your reader into the story, one that evokes imagery and mood and sets the tone. After all, the job of the opening line is to capture your reader’s attention and keep it so that they read the entire book. More importantly, it’s the proceeding sentences and paragraphs that really count – the unfolding story thereafter.

How do they work?

They work by drawing the reader into the fictional world you’ve created, they act as a lure, a bait, they tempt and tease so that they have to know more about this fictional world and the people that inhabit it because readers just love to read about interesting, unique characters; people we would either love to be, or be with.

Writers use these captivating first lines not only to hook the reader, but to establish the voice of the novel. They set the tone by hinting at something bad that will happen or has happened, and of course, they provoke and illicit emotions from us.

Many first lines raise questions that, as a reader, you desperately want to find the answer to. Some of the opening lines of well known novels have achieved this:

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – 1984, George Orwell.

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” - The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath.

“I bother only with widows.” – Tender Prey, Patricia Roberts.

“They’re out there.” - One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey

“The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.” Neuromancer, Willian Gibson.

These first liners intrigue, they catch the reader off guard, they draw the reader in to want to know more, but the thing about first lines is that they can be foreboding, dark, light-hearted, mysterious, emotional, clever, fact anything you want them to be.

If you are looking to try traditional publishing, then it’s even more important to get the opening line to your novel just right, because it has to entice not just any reader, but a potential agent and publisher. It needs to make them sit up and take notice.

Every opening line is different, and all of them fall within the context of the whole story, so the opening should be two-fold – to entice the reader enough to want to read further, and to introduce the story in such a way the opening doesn’t detract from the story, but rather enhances it.

Some writers are vivid with their openings. Some are unflinching. Some are powerful, and when the initial surprise disappears, the story is then firmly established and the reader is hooked. As the writer, you want their attention.

If you want to write a captivating first line, think of the story as whole, think about context. Don’t just write open with a bang which has nothing to do with the story. The opening must connect to the rest of the story. You should ask yourself what kind of opening you want – one that is dynamic (creates mystery, shock, surprise or raises questions) or one that sets the mood and tone and creates a certain atmosphere.

The best way to familiarise yourself with them is to study different opening lines from a range of novels. You’ll find most of them do the following:
  • Set the tone of the story
  • Establish a connection with the reader through mystery or conflict or emotion
  • Raise questions that the reader wants answers to
  • Shock or surprise the reader into knowing more

Some writers spend a lot of time on their opening, while some create an opening line instantly. Either way, it doesn’t matter. What’s important is that you try not to overcomplicate it or overthink it. Most of the best openers are short and simple.

Don’t open with backstory or lots of information, otherwise the reader just won’t be interested and try to avoid prologues – these can be a turn off, unless you can make the opening line of the prologue mesmerising enough to lure the reader.
Remember, there are no rules about this, but logically the opening line should captivate. We want the reader’s attention. We want them to read our stories, and continue reading.
Next week: Why focusing on small details is important