Friday, July 22, 2011

Friday's Fare: First Impressions

Do you remember when you were a kid and your mother used to say, "You only have one chance to make a first impression"? Like it or not, that holds true today in our writing more than anything else. Especially for those of us who write for kids and teens, nothing is more important than that first sentence, paragraph, and page. If we don't capture their interest immediately, they won't continue reading and the book goes back to the library or on their bookshelf where it will gather cute little dust bunnies for the next decade.

So how do you start that first page? What makes a first sentence exciting? How many of you have read Charlotte's Web?
                     "Mama, where's Papa going with that ax?"
Now there's a first sentence to grab you by the throat ! Many writers do begin their novels with dialogue,  but it has to be something that is startling, humorous, frightening, or in some other way grabs the attention of the reader and doesn't let go. For example:
                      First the colors. Then the humans. That's usually how I see things.
                      Or at least, how I try.
                                   HERE IS A SMALL FACT.
                                       You are going to die.

Okay, not just a single sentence, but this is how The Book Thief, by Marcus Zusak,
begins. Now wouldn't that hold you interest, and make you continue reading? It sure did me !

                               Look, I didn't want to be a half-blood.

A half-blood? A half-blood of what or who? The first line of The Lightning Thief, by Rick Riordan.  A few sentences down, Riordan goes on to say that ...being a half-blood is dangerous, it could get you killed. (Paraphrasing here.) That will get any kid's attention, right?

I'm going to give you the first sentence of an adult book by Virginia Woolf, and tell you what that sentence says to me. Compare my thoughts with what you may have thought about it.
                    Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.
Here is what the sentence says to me:
1. Question: who is Mrs. Dalloway, and who is she buying flowers for?
2. It tells me that buying flowers herself is not the usual way she does things, so there must be some special reason for her to do it now. I wonder what that reason is?
3. The sentence indicates someone is talking about Mrs. Dalloway to someone else. Who, and why? It's almost as though Mrs.Dalloway has servants, one of whom usually buys her flowers, so that servant is talking to another one because it is unusual for Mrs. D to buy her own flowers . ( May or may not be true.)
4. I get the feeling that there is something mysterious or very different about this simple act of buying flowers, and it makes me want to read on, and find out why Mrs.Dalloway is doing what she's doing.

Did any of the above thoughts occur to you? think about it, and decide why or why not.

Here are some ideas about things to look for and think about in writing your first sentence ( or 2 or 3), always keeping in mind the age of the children or teens you're writing for:

1. Will the make the reader ask questions that can only be answered by reading further?
2. Does it give the impression that something mysterious, or exciting, or dangerous, or very funny is going to happen in the coming pages? 
3. Does that first sentence ( or 2 or 3) hint at some kind of goal to be accomplished or conflict to be overcome in future pages?
4. Do you believe your reader will find an immediate emotional connection to your character, or be fascinated by the scene or bits of dialogue you've created?

Now I'm going to give you some first sentences, not all of which come from published novels... some you will recognize, some you may not. Read each one separately, and think about it for a minute. Then ask yourself the above questions, and see if any apply to your feelings about the sentence. If they do, write out the sentence, and then write what you think or feel about it. Keep it for reference when you write your next first sentence, or revise the ones you have now.

1.  Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday. I don't know.
2.  This is what happened.
3.  I don't know why she thought the plan was hers. It wasn't. It couldn't have been.
4.  I am invisible. I am flesh and blood, but I am invisible. People see right through me; they walk right past me. They don't hear me crying.
5.  Murder never sends out a calling card, so why was it different this time?

I hope you have fun with this, but also, that it helps some in writing those all important "first" sentences...or 2 or 3!

Until next time,
That's a wrap.


  1. This is a great exercise, Mikki. Thanks!

  2. I love first lines. And Rick Riordan is a genius when it comes to writing them. I did a post a while back with all my favorite first lines and his line from The Titan's Curse was my all time favorite. Great post, Mikki.

  3. Thanks, ladies! Like most of us, I never thought much about first lines until I began writing and taking courses. Now I kinda "fixate" on them..find out for myself what makes them good or bad, what they "say" to me,and so on. Occasionally I find that the first line or first few lines are more interesting than the whole book!