These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.
The fourth judging criterion for the Writing Challenge is did the entry start well? Here are some ways you can get a yes to that question:
1. Pick a great title. Although titles aren’t specifically judged, your title is the first impression the judges have for your entry.
a. Use interesting words…include names of characters (especially quirky names)…try some kinds of punctuation (dashes, colons, ellipses)…consider alliteration.
b. Be sure your title fits the mood of your entry
c. Try one-word titles OR very long ones
d. A title with a double meaning that’s revealed to the reader after she’s read your entry—awesome!
e. Don’t give away your ending or a significant plot twist with your title, especially if it’s supposed to be a surprise.
f. Don’t use clichés or familiar phrases—even worse, don’t use a phrase that someone else has already used as a title for their book, song, movie
g. Avoid titles that use this construction: The ___________. You can do better.
h. Finally, under no circumstances should your title be the same as the topic—and if possible, avoid even putting the topic word in your title in any form.
2. The beginning of your entry should hook the reader within the first three or four sentences. You won’t be able to do all of these tips in one entry—pick and choose the ones that work best for you. For each one, I’ve included examples from literature (except for the first one, which I just wrote).
a. If your story has a setting other than here and now, let the reader know within the first paragraph. BEWARE: show, don’t tell.
Telling: It was the autumn of 1854. Miss Velma worked in a saloon called the Happy K. She was a barmaid with a heart of gold.
Showing: Miss Velma pushed through the swinging doors of the Happy K and called out to the pianist. “Play that new song, ‘Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair’, would ya? It reminds me of my mother…” She adjusted her corset and brushed away a tear.
b. Consider using short first sentences—7 or 8 words or less. We live in an age of short attention spans; if a reader has to slog through endless description or set-up, she may just choose to move on.
Call me Ishmael.
I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.
You’d better not tell nobody but God.
c. Make the reader think “huh”? If your first sentence is puzzling or intriguing, the reader is likely to keep going, to find out what’s going on.
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
d. Introduce the conflict in the first sentence or two.
Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.
e. Make sure your first sentence uses interesting, non-rice cake words.
It was the day my grandmother exploded.
e. My personal opinion (backed up by publishers, I’ve heard…)—don’t begin with dialog. For the reader, it’s like walking in on the middle of a conversation.
HOMEWORK: You have a choice.
1. Make a comment or ask a question about beginnings of challenge entries.
2. Add your own item to this list—what do you think makes a great beginning?
3. Share a favorite title (either your own or someone else’s), and tell why you like it.
Here’s the best part: If I get at least 20 non-masters people to respond to #4, I will give a great prize to one responder, drawn at random, and another one to the best response (totally subjective, judged by me). Masters, you can enter too, and you’re eligible for the giveaway, but I’ll only award it if at least 20 non-masters respond.
4. Write a GREAT first sentence. ONE SENTENCE ONLY. And send friends this way to try their hand at this, too—I’m not going to give the prizes away unless 20 non-masters give it a shot. That’s all you have to do—write one sentence that you think would draw readers in.
Last edited by glorybee on Mon Jun 21, 2010 10:13 am, edited 1 time in total.
Barb, I have mixed feelings about this. I like it less in nonfiction than in fiction, to be sure. There's definitely no rule about it, so (as with many things in the art of writing) it comes down to personal taste.
I can imagine a story told in first person beginning with a great question, sort of addressing the reader.
Do you remember the book "Love Story" that was so popular in the 70s? It starts with the line "What can you say about a 25-year-old girl who died?" That breaks practically all of the 'rules' I had above, but it was a huge best seller. Just goes to show you, I guess.
How about something like this for the first sentence?
As Marilyn peered at the dark, littered alley, the only thing inviting was an "I Love NY" sticker on the side of a nearby dumpster; everything in her screamed "don't do it," but she didn't have time to take the long way.
One thing I noticed is that the first sentence can set the tempo or expectation for the rest of the story. One piece I wrote had a first sentence that would make the story seem like it had tons of action. But, in order to make it fit the topic, I didn't go in that direction. The reviewers let me know that I should have kept it in the same spirit as the first sentence.
I have had several people tell me that the only reason they took the time to look at my story was because of the title. That means even though it isn't part of the judging a good title will get you more reads which is really what a writer wants anyway. That is my "comment".
Here is a title of one of my entries: The Elephant's Oozie
The reason for this title was obvious. Everyone would know what an elephant is but how many would know what an oozie is? How many would be curious enough to find out? That might be another comment: try to find a title that creates enough curiousity to hook the reader into reading. The first few sentences will convice the reader to read the story but it's the title that gets them to read the first few sentences.
Now, for an opening sentence:
The night had been as cold as it had been long, leaving the small group of mountain climbers little hope for survival.
I had something really memorable to write here but I forgot what it was.
1)I once copied a title for a blog post. The title was 'Happiness is a Warm Gun'. The title came from a Beatles song from the 60's. They, in turn copied it from a magazine cover title, which had in turn been copied and parodied from a Peanuts title, "Happiness is a Warm Puppy."
2)I'm still trying to figure out what makes a great beginning. For me, I like wit, sarcasm and/or mystery. These three get me every time. What I do NOT prefer, is gooey descriptive (esp landscape-related) prose at the very beginning.
3)I like titles which make people think, there's so many I love it's difficult to choose. But I think GShuler's title mentioned above, "Elephant's Oozie" is fabulous!
4) Michael Smith, when he was only seven years old, married his sweetheart; today, forty years later and beyond inconceivable difficulties, he would do it again.
It was the day before retirement, forty years of perfect attendance and David was baffled that this would bring about his downfall.
Thanks so much.
To me, that sentence is a bit long for an opening sentence. I think I'd eliminate the semicolon and make it a period. Another thing that's solely personal preference (and I debated whether to mention it in my original post, for that very reason)--beginning with 'as'. There's nothing grammatically wrong with it, but I've read way too many high school papers that start that way, and I just don't think it's the best way to start. Totally your call, though--it's a common way to begin and there are no reasons other than personal preference to avoid it.
Marilyn peered down the dark, littered alley, noting an incongruous 'I Love NY' sticker on a nearby dumpster. Don't do it, Marilyn. Take the long way. She checked her watch, looked over her shoulder, and stepped into the shadows.
The positives: you introduced a possible source of conflict immediately, put your reader right into the action, and you used some great 'salsa' words and sensory images. I'd definitely keep reading.
Gerald, thanks for your comment! What IS an elephant's oozie? A skin disease came immediately to my mind (ewwwwww...)
Thanks for a super first sentence--you've got setting and conflict right there, and both physical and emotional triggers for the reader. Well done!
WFN, this is a fascinating first sentence! It's the kind that makes the reader go 'huh'? How did Michael Smith marry someone at seven? What inconceivable difficulties?
What do you think, though--how about a period instead of a semicolon? Let 'sweetheart' be the last word of that sentence, rather than 'again'--I like to end a sentence with a strong word. That's personal preference, one of those subtle thingies that makes writing an 'art', not a science. Totally your call.
Dana, I love the intrigue in this sentence. Of course I want to read more to find out the source of David's downfall, and why 'baffled' is how he feels rather than 'outraged' or some stronger emotion.
The only change I'd suggest is one of punctuation. I think you want to emphasize the phrase in the middle, and a great way to set it aside from the body of the sentence is by using dashes.
It was the day before retirement--forty years of perfet attendance--and David was baffled that this would bring about his downfall.
What do you think?
Yes, it is much better with the dashes.
Jan, because you were curious . . . an elephant's oozie is its trainer or owner.
I had something really memorable to write here but I forgot what it was.
To begin with an aside--how does one include a quote from another reply?
In response to your response, "What do you think, though--how about a period instead of a semicolon?" I totally agree. You see, I was cheating, since you asked for only one sentence, and I simply could not create my intended impact with only one sentence. So I glued two together.
To include a quote here on the message boards, just click the 'quote' button at the upper right corner of the message you want to quote from. You'll be taken immediately to a familar reply box, with the person's quote already there. You can add your own text with above the quote or below it, and you can even delete part of the text so that you're just quoting a part of it. (You can also bold the text ofr emphasis, add itlaics or color, etc.)
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