Friday, October 28, 2016

Once Upon a Time

Dakota Fanning in the
2007 movie version of
Charlotte's Web

“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern...

This line, the first in Charlotte's Webb is one of the most famous children's book first lines.

We immediately are interested in what is coming next, we connect with Fern's concern, and get a sense of the urgency of Wilbur's plight. You can probably assign varying intonations to it. Fern might be asking the question innocently, curiously, or with full knowledge of what it means when papa picks up that ax and goes outside. Where IS "...papa going with that ax" indeed.

Fern was almost not in the book. We are told that E.B. White struggled with how to start Charlotte's Web, unsure whether to begin with Wilbur or Charlotte. Then at the last minute, he added Fern, the little girl who pleads with her father not to kill a runt piglet. Although her role in the story does not endure to the end, she adds humanity to the book in an important way.

That first line is so crucial to your writing, especially if you are not yet a well-established author. Readers often come to your work with a dose of skepticism, waiting for you to prove yourself, and that first line will stay with them and could make or break you. It must grab the reader's interest, hint at the meat of the story, the tone of the story, and give them an idea of the sort of trip they are about to take.

Sometimes finding the right first line just means a little rearranging. I recently submitted a short story to be work-shopped by a group of writers. It was a piece that I had been sitting on for quite some time and I felt pleased with the first half of it--endings are usually my biggest challenge. One of the most useful comments I received was from one author who pointed out that I had buried a particularly moving observation in the middle of the second paragraph. "That should be the first line," he wrote in large print. It was obvious once he said it.

Moving a particularly effective line to the beginning might be the best thing you can do for your piece. Other times you may need to move the point of audience engagement completely. Instead of writing a 'Once upon a time' type of opening and setting the scene, jump into the action and let the characters fill in the details of the world in which they live as they live it.

How much time do you spend crafting the first few lines of your novel, short story, poem? What approach works best for you?

2 comments:

Liane Spicer said...

That bit about Charlotte's Web is fascinating!

I usually come back to the first line/paragraph/page when my story is complete and I've taken a break from it so I can look with fresh eyes. Then I chew at it and chew at it until I'm satisfied. It takes more sweat than anything else in the story.

Linda Thorne said...

This was one of the best "first lines" ever. They work. The great hooks. I enjoyed this post.