In which the Octopus offers Tips 3 through 5
Welcome back, my inklings. On March 26th, we started a discussion about how to grab your reader from the first sentence of your story. Today we’ll continue with a few more methods designed to intrigue and excite your reader.
Note: If not otherwise attributed, any example “first sentence” is my own creation provided only to prove concept. I may eventually revisit these sample first sentences and turn them into full stories.
3. The Contradiction:
“It was only after my grandfather died that he really began to talk to me.”
Often a contradictory statement, the reader is propositioned with an intriguing juxtaposition of concepts that they can only make sense of if they keep reading. Assumptions, of course, can be made about what it might mean but if you’re reader is provoked into thought they’re likely to want to read more. As with any of these examples there are unspoken promises made in any first sentence. You must satisfactorily fulfill those promises. The promise here is that we will understand how this statement is true. This first sentence could either yield a bizarre piece of science fiction or perhaps a touching story of connecting to a lost loved one through their diaries. The possibilities are very open at this stage but you can see that the impossibility of the statement prompts the reader to want an explanation.
4. Setting the Tone:
“SQUIRE TRELAWNEY, Dr. Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is still treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17__ and go back to the time when my father kept the Admiral Benbow inn and the brown old seaman with the sabre cut first took up his lodging under our roof.” Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island (1883)
So much is established in this introduction from the general scenario and character’s names to the presence of treasure on an unknown island. So much hangs on those four words, “with the sabre cut”, without which the threatening tone would be lost. The whole of the opening line gives us an air of adventure and intrigue (since there’s still treasure on the island) but those four words add a sense of danger that draws the reader forward with trepidation.
This example gives a very expositional layout of the situation but you can also set the tone without giving so much detail.
“Marley was dead, to begin with.” Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843)
This one comes to mind. Given that the first chapter is bluntly titled, “Marley’s Ghost” it gives this line all the more punch and most readers simply can’t say no to continuing. Notice though that the legendary Ebenezer Scrooge is absent from the first line of his own book. He’s also not in the title.
5. Establish the Theme:
“The boys were silent apart from a few grins, which blasted liked sirens to Ms. Nealy, as she pointedly plucked the dirt clod from her coffee mug and dropped it into the trash can.”
You probably wouldn’t guess that I imagined this as starting a story about how bad things can get when people are afraid to report crimes. That’s part of the point of establishing the theme early, only with later information does it come into view but an interesting vignette at the start can be a shadow of a larger problem that’s building.
I’m also attempting an impossible description in that grins don’t really make noise. It’s all aimed at breaking the ice with the reader to get them thinking. Ms. Nealy is clearly aggravated so much that her students are defying the laws of physics.
Stop by tomorrow for the final entry where we’ll discuss the Blunt Force Introduction and two other great ways to make your story hit the ground running from the first sentence.