Recently I was the guest of a book club and this is where the rubber meets the road for authors. You have to come up with answers and I’m talking facts and details—no glorified BS or double talk. The one question I always get asked is “How do you begin a book, story, play or movie?” I know for most people that is the BIG question.
When I first began writing, (my first effort was at age 17 with a 3-act play called GOOD GRIEF!), I was fortunate in having several members in my family who were professional writers and I could ask them questions. The only one who ever came up with satisfactory answers to my questions was Sally Kelley (my father’s first cousin), who wrote short stories for many leading magazines such as Harpers. The most important thing she impressed upon me was that an opening sentence to any creative work had to have something she called “interesting focus elements” or “seeds.”
This raised a follow-up question from me. What do you mean “interesting?” She said another word would be “hooks.” These are items that can hook one’s interest. They actually are “seeds” you can easily elaborate upon and thereby furnish yourself with further seeds to write about down the line. Before long your novel will be finished and you won’t have encountered writers’ block. “If you ever get stuck, it’s because you have no interesting seeds in your sentences,” Sally used to say.
Your opening sentence may have only one seed or it may have a dozen. The form the sentence takes can be a general statement, a fact, something that sets the mood or comparing two or more facts.
If your seeds are good, your story will almost write itself from the beginning sentence onward. If they are NOT interesting, you will find out in about two pages that you’re writing in circles. At that point, you’ll begin all over again.
EXAMPLE: I’ll make up a sentence for you. “I never believed in unkind people until I met Julia Clay at my sister’s birthday party.” Okay, there you have all sorts of possible seed hooks: I (is an optimist), never believed, unkind people, Julia Clay, sister, birthday party. In fact, you can play off of each of those focus word seeds to write your entire book. In other words, your beginning sentence has just introduced you to the rest of the book, story, play or screenplay.
So you will be able to get your thinking correct about this entire subject of opening sentences, I’m going to give you lots of examples.
- (Last Week’s Blog) “My friend Mike recently invited me over for lunch to see his new house, his new dog and the amenities of his patio area.” (general statement) Mike, lunch, new house, dog, patio. I could have expounded on any of those 5 seeds but I worked on dog and patio and via seeds in following sentences, I was soon talking about international spies. You do not have to use all the possible seeds. Only use those that will hook your reader. In this case dog and patio provided the gateway to the rest of the blog.
- (My book CONTESSA) “My mother’s name was Mildred Hankins.” (fact) Mother, Mildred, Hankins. I went on in the following sentences to describe my mother, her two worthless sisters and then that dreadful father. The other 529 pages followed easily.
- (MOBY DICK by Herman Melville) “Call me Ishmael.” (fact) He had two seeds—call and Ishmael. Call means that he is introducing himself and the story. Ishmael can be the jumping off seed character.
- (THE KEEPERS by Sally Kelley) “YOU VIR-GILL!” yells Papa from the downstairs bedroom. (Mood) Virgill, yells, Papa, downstairs, bedroom. Each word could be a seed. Yells is a mood setter. From just reading this sentence, you know that Papa and Virgill don’t get along all that well and that probably Virgill is thought to be lazy to be yelled at in the first place.
- (TALE OF TWO CITIES by Charles Dickens) “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” (comparing two things) Best, worst are two great “seeds.” And Dickens certainly made the most of these two seeds.
- (THE PRINCESS BRIDE by William Goldman) Movie: The first line of dialogue is a mother saying, “You feeling any better?” (general statement) The seeds are you, feeling, better. Believe it or not, these seeds are great and allow you to really open the story. You is obviously inferior to the asker, feeling means something is wrong and better means we’re concentrating on improving the condition. Great screenplay.
- (PRIDE AND PREJUDICE by Jane Austin) “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” (fact) truth, universally acknowledged, single, man, good fortune, must, wife. Many seeds and she worked on each of them. The “universally acknowledged” part is where she elaborated quite a bit in showing how the local townspeople felt about things.
- (My stage play HOTEL VIRGINIA) “Well, well, look who’s here.” (mood) Well, well denotes surprise and we want to know why would you be surprised? Look (this causes us to actually look), who (we want to know who this person is), here (sounds like the person is a surprise visitor and could not be welcomed.) All of these seeds are used in the next lines of dialogue.
- (ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE by Gabriel Garcia Marquez) “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” (fact) many years later, faced, firing squad, remember, afternoon, father, discover, ice. Tons of seeds here. You can see the entire book in this one sentence.
- (PAUL CLIFFORD by Edward Bulwer-Lytton) “It was a dark and stormy night. (statement, mood) This is the oldest chestnut in the barrel of beginning sentences. The seeds are not strong ones but night is always a good seed because of people’s basic fear of it.
- (GONE WITH THE WIND by Margaret Mitchell) “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton Twins were.”
(general statement) Scarlett, O’Hara, beautiful, men, caught, charm, Tarleton Twins. And did she ever make good use of those seeds in her opening sentence.
- (and finally a bit of self-promoting, the opening line from my new homicide mystery MURDER IMPOSSIBLE, which will hit the market in late November of this year.)
“By June when the school year finally ended, the Teddy Bear Murders or l’affaire Cody, as Olivia liked to call it, had become old news to most people.) (general statement) The seeds I used were June, Murder, Cody, Olivia, old news, people.
I hope this has been of some help if a question about beginning sentences was of interest to you. Now, just for the heck of it, write an opening sentence and send it as a comment to this blog. I will have a person other than myself to judge them. The winner will receive a FREE COPY of my new book MURDER IMPOSSIBLE. Cheers!