Tag Archives: first sentences

Six Strategies for Writing One Great Sentence

9 Nov

Belly Up, the debut story collection from Rita Bullwinkel, was called “creepy, deadpan” and “emotionally powerful” by the New York Times.

It’s week two of National Novel Writing Month, and maybe you’re plugging along, doing great. Or maybe you’re still waiting for that “one true sentence,” as Hemingway said, that will carry you into the story.

The recent story collection, Belly Up by Rita Bullwinkel is chock full of first sentences that are so captivating, yet nonchalant, that you can’t help but want to keep reading. They’re also full of strategies that any writer can borrow in their own work.

How the Sentences Work

There are too many great first sentences in the book to pick just one. So I want to show you several, to demonstrate what is possible with the opening line of a story. Here is the first sentence from “Burn”:

“People kept dying and I was made to sleep in their beds.”

One of the things that Bullwinkel has in spades is a wry, understated tone. That’s a strategy that works best when there is something to understate, which means the story has to be about something grander than a slice of dry-toast life. Clearly, this story has got that. The distance between premise and tone is the first thing the sentence does well (and you’ll see that again and again in the story in Belly Up). 

It also introduces the premise as an ongoing routine. In workshop, we often talk about starting stories in media res, and the bad version of that is something like “So there I am, fighting a wildcat with laser eyes, and I’m thinking, who’s going to have the coffee ready when my stupid husband wakes up.” Such a sentence might start in the middle of the action, but it has a kind of artifice to it that can drag the story down eventually. In real life, nobody tells stories like that. We start at the beginning. The trick is to make the beginning sound as if the story is really about to launch into something good.

I also love how matter-of-fact the sentence is. The temptation in stories that reach beyond the bounds of usual happenstance is that they reach into the realm of the stories that third-graders tell: “And then the ninjas popped out. And the dinosaur ate the school. And aliens landed.” Bullwinkel starts with people dying and then moves to an essential part of any life: sleeping.

The story “What I Would Be If I Wasn’t What I Am” starts like this:

“I had a husband.”

In that sentence, Bullwinkel has managed to create suspense and intrigue out of one of the most boring verbs in the language. In this sentence, have would be unremarkable. But had is weird, a tense nobody would choose. Even if you were divorced or your husband was dead, you probably would say this particular combination of words. As writers, it’s tempting to reach for the fireworks, but anything unusual, no matter how small, can grab a reader’s attention.

The story “Hunker Down” starts this way:

“By the time my daughter came of age, the economy was so bad that it was cheaper to hire someone to hold her breasts up than it was to buy her a bra.”

As with the opening sentence from “Burn,” there’s a level of understatement at work here. But there’s also a razor-sharp wit, something that George Saunders has and Paul Beatty and a whole lot of grandmas and grandpas: the ability to cut someone (often you) down with only a few words. They do it by making it personal. Imagine all the ways a sentence starting, “The economy was so bad that…” could end. It’s like one of those old-school comedian jokes. The challenge is to finish it well, and Bullwinkel does it by moving toward the personal and physical. As Tim O’Brien wrote in “How to Tell a True War Story,” in a good story, the body knows what’s true before the brain does.

In “Decor,” she starts this way:

“There was a period of my life in which my primary source of income came from being a piece of furniture.”

Again, there’s that wry, understated tone. There’s also the joke set up (my primary source of income came from…” and the finish that swerves in a direction you couldn’t have predicted. Again, it implies the physical: what does it mean to be a piece of furniture? And also the mental and moral: what does it mean to be a piece of furniture?

Finally, she starts “Fried Dough” like this:

“A particular type of love story takes place in twenty-four hour donut shops.”

The understated tone, the joke setup and…the sense of place. One of my high school English teachers liked to say (just as yours did, no doubt) that nothing original had been written since Shakespeare; this sentence proves that statement wrong. There are plenty of unexplored places in fiction, places that your readers know so intimately that to be reminded of them is to smell them, to touch parts of them. A 24-hour donut shop is a place that lingers in your brain the way bad smells attach to your skin and clothes. When you find a place like that, stay there. Put the reader there as quickly as you can. And then bring life to that place. There’s no better way to do so than to start a love story.

The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction: “An indispensable book that belongs on every serious writer’s desk.”

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try out some first-sentence strategies, using Belly Up by Rita Bullwinkle as a model:

  1. Play with tone. If you know the sort of story you’re introducing, play around with different styles for a straightforward first sentence. You can be deadpan, witty, angry, or mellow. You can be hiding something from the reader (or yourself) or just throwing it all out there. You can be nervous or bold. What is the narrator’s or main character’s approach to the material? Write a sentence with a style that fits that approach.
  2. Introduce routine. You can use this old standby: “Every day we did the same thing, until one day…” Or you can use a word like kept, which suggests that something is happening despite someone’s best efforts to stop it.
  3. Play with words that might otherwise go unnoticed. Change a noun to a slightly less usual version of that noun. Do the same thing with verbs. This doesn’t necessarily mean substituting canter for walk; don’t be like a freshman composition student pulling out the old thesaurus to impress a teacher. A word doesn’t need to be a novelty to be unexpected.
  4. Treat the sentence like a joke setup. Try these: “X was so Y that I Z’d.” Or “There was a time when I was so X that Y.” Use the reader’s natural inclination to hear out the joke to get them interested in the story.
  5. Make the sentence personal and physical. Even if you start with something weird and abstract, by the end of the sentence, move to the body. Make the readers feel your story on their skin.
  6. Dig into setting. It can be as simple as simply naming an unusual setting and telling us the kind of story that will take place there: a love story in a donut shop. Or, a matter of life and death in a day-old bread store.

The goal is to introduce your story in a way that draws the reader in. We think of shock as a good approach, but shock often pushes readers back. The sentences in Belly Up are unexpected and also inviting.

Good luck.

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How to Write a Great First Sentence

16 May

Belly Up, the debut story collection from Rita Bullwinkel, was a staff pick at The Paris Review and a highly anticipated book at several prominent websites.

There are few sentences so vexing as the first one. Perhaps the final sentence of a story or novel is just as tough, but at least by then you’ve written a complete thing that has led up to it, and so even if you don’t nail it (which many stories and novels do not), at least you managed to build up enough momentum to carry the reader all that way; they’re getting off the ride, regardless of how it ends. But first sentences can make or break a story. How many of us have flipped to a story in a collection, read the first sentence, thought, “Nah,” and closed the book.

You need those sentences to be great.

But also: a sentence that appears to be trying too hard, no matter how intriguing or beautiful it manages to be (in spite of all that effort, or because of it) will turn off a reader as quickly as a sentence that did not try at all.

The key is to be great without seeming to try.

A great example of a story collection full of first sentences that have the tempting quality of a first drink or bite of cake (of course you will keep eating or drinking), but also the same sneaky nonchalance of liquor and cake, is Rita Bullwinkel’s debut collection, Belly Up. You can find the book here.

How the Stories Work

There are too many great first sentences in the book to pick just one. So I want to show you several, to demonstrate what is possible with the opening line of a story. Here is the first sentence from “Burn”:

“People kept dying and I was made to sleep in their beds.”

One of the things that Bullwinkel has in spades is a wry, understated tone. That’s a strategy that works best when there is something to understate, which means the story has to be about something grander than a slice of dry-toast life. Clearly, this story has got that. The distance between premise and tone is the first thing the sentence does well (and you’ll see that again and again in the story in Belly Up). 

It also introduces the premise as an ongoing routine. In workshop, we often talk about starting stories in media res, and the bad version of that is something like “So there I am, fighting a wildcat with laser eyes, and I’m thinking, who’s going to have the coffee ready when my stupid husband wakes up.” Such a sentence might start in the middle of the action, but it has a kind of artifice to it that can drag the story down eventually. In real life, nobody tells stories like that. We start at the beginning. The trick is to make the beginning sound as if the story is really about to launch into something good.

I also love how matter-of-fact the sentence is. The temptation in stories that reach beyond the bounds of usual happenstance is that they reach into the realm of the stories that third-graders tell: “And then the ninjas popped out. And the dinosaur ate the school. And aliens landed.” Bullwinkel starts with people dying and then moves to an essential part of any life: sleeping.

The story “What I Would Be If I Wasn’t What I Am” starts like this:

“I had a husband.”

In that sentence, Bullwinkel has managed to create suspense and intrigue out of one of the most boring verbs in the language. In this sentence, have would be unremarkable. But had is weird, a tense nobody would choose. Even if you were divorced or your husband was dead, you probably would say this particular combination of words. As writers, it’s tempting to reach for the fireworks, but anything unusual, no matter how small, can grab a reader’s attention.

The story “Hunker Down” starts this way:

“By the time my daughter came of age, the economy was so bad that it was cheaper to hire someone to hold her breasts up than it was to buy her a bra.”

As with the opening sentence from “Burn,” there’s a level of understatement at work here. But there’s also a razor-sharp wit, something that George Saunders has and Paul Beatty and a whole lot of grandmas and grandpas: the ability to cut someone (often you) down with only a few words. They do it by making it personal. Imagine all the ways a sentence starting, “The economy was so bad that…” could end. It’s like one of those old-school comedian jokes. The challenge is to finish it well, and Bullwinkel does it by moving toward the personal and physical. As Tim O’Brien wrote in “How to Tell a True War Story,” in a good story, the body knows what’s true before the brain does.

In “Decor,” she starts this way:

“There was a period of my life in which my primary source of income came from being a piece of furniture.”

Again, there’s that wry, understated tone. There’s also the joke set up (my primary source of income came from…” and the finish that swerves in a direction you couldn’t have predicted. Again, it implies the physical: what does it mean to be a piece of furniture? And also the mental and moral: what does it mean to be a piece of furniture?

Finally, she starts “Fried Dough” like this:

“A particular type of love story takes place in twenty-four hour donut shops.”

The understated tone, the joke setup and…the sense of place. One of my high school English teachers liked to say (just as yours did, no doubt) that nothing original had been written since Shakespeare; this sentence proves that statement wrong. There are plenty of unexplored places in fiction, places that your readers know so intimately that to be reminded of them is to smell them, to touch parts of them. A 24-hour donut shop is a place that lingers in your brain the way bad smells attach to your skin and clothes. When you find a place like that, stay there. Put the reader there as quickly as you can. And then bring life to that place. There’s no better way to do so than to start a love story.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try out some first-sentence strategies, using Belly Up by Rita Bullwinkle as a model:

  1. Play with tone. If you know the sort of story you’re introducing, play around with different styles for a straightforward first sentence. You can be deadpan, witty, angry, or mellow. You can be hiding something from the reader (or yourself) or just throwing it all out there. You can be nervous or bold. What is the narrator’s or main character’s approach to the material? Write a sentence with a style that fits that approach.
  2. Introduce routine. You can use use this old standby: “Every day we did the same thing, until one day…” Or you can use a word like kept, which suggests that something is happening despite someone’s best efforts to stop it.
  3. Play with words that might otherwise go unnoticed. Change a noun to a slightly less usual version of that noun. Do the same thing with verbs. This doesn’t necessarily mean substituting canter for walk; don’t be like a freshman composition student pulling out the old thesaurus to impress a teacher. A word doesn’t need to be a novelty to be unexpected.
  4. Treat the sentence like a joke setup. Try these: “X was so Y that I Z’d.” Or “There was a time when I was so X that Y.” Use the reader’s natural inclination to hear out the joke to get them interested in the story.
  5. Make the sentence personal and physical. Even if you start with something weird and abstract, by the end of the sentence, move to the body. Make the readers feel your story on their skin.
  6. Dig into setting. It can be as simple as simply naming an unusual setting and telling us the kind of story that will take place there: a love story in a donut shop. Or, a matter of life and death in a day-old bread store.

The goal is to introduce your story in a way that draws the reader in. We think of shock as a good approach, but shock often pushes readers back. The sentences in Belly Up are unexpected and also inviting.

Good luck.

How to Create Your Narrator’s Voice

3 Sep
Joe Lansdale's new novel The Thicket is about X. You can read a free excerpt on Facebook.

Joe R. Lansdale’s new novel The Thicket follows a band of unlikely heroes on an adventure in turn-of-the-century East Texas. You can read a free excerpt on Facebook.

No aspect of writing fiction is more mysterious than creating a unique voice for the narrator. We often begin by imitating a voice that we love–Huck Finn, Holden Caulfield, or any of the voices dreamed up by Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Kraus, or Gary Shteyngart. Or we try to write the way that someone we know talks. As we fail, the elusive voice becomes like a magic trick that we should know how to perform but have forgotten. So what do we do?

One writer who consistently creates compelling narrators is Joe R. Lansdale. His new novel, The Thicket (to be released September 10) is set in East Texas at the turn of the century and narrated in a voice that catches your eye before the first sentence is over. The writer Ron Carlson said that The Thicket is “told in a voice so alluring and deadpan that it makes you smile and then look around to see who saw you smile.” You can read a preview of the first chapter here.

How the Story Works

First sentences are notoriously difficult to write. Stephen King recently claimed that he cannot write a novel until he’s gotten the first sentence right, and that sometimes doing so takes years. So it’s interesting to see how Lansdale approaches the first sentence of his novel. Notice how quickly he establishes the narrator’s voice:

“I didn’t suspect the day Grandfather came out and got me and my sister, Lula, and hauled us off toward the ferry that I’d soon end up with worse things happening than had already come upon us or that I’d take up with a gun-shooting dwarf, the son of a slave, and a big angry hog, let alone find true love and kill someone, but that’s exactly how it was.”

In that sentence, Lansdale falls back on a tried-and-true strategy. If you don’t know how to start a story, just tell the reader what will happen. It may sound simplistic, but this face-value approach is key to establishing the narrator’s voice for two reasons:

  1. We learn that the narrator is a tell-it-like-it-is kind of guy. He’s not going to play around with us. If you’re trying to develop a character, it’s useful to have a couple of hard-and-fast personality traits to rely upon.
  2. Because the statement is so factual, Lansdale has the luxury of playing with the words. He doesn’t have to worry about finding something interesting to say; he just needs to let the narrator find an interesting way to say a basic thing. This is exactly the strategy used here by Mark Twain in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (notice how it’s stating basic information):

“The Widow Douglas she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn’t stand it no longer I lit out.”

A final point to consider: It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that great voices are highly elaborate or deeply folksy, but the phrasings that make them memorable are often subtle. Lansdale’s three-part phrase “gun-shooting dwarf, the son of a slave, and a big angry hog” simply adds a few eye-catching adjectives. (This is another reason you shouldn’t abide by all “rules for writers.” Adjectives, when used well, can make a story sparkle.)

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a voice, using Joe Lansdale’s The Thicket as a model:

  1. Using a story you’ve been working on, write a new first sentence(s). State outright, in the first person, what will happen. Use your plainest language. You’re giving yourself a frame to hang the narration on.
  2. Think about your narrator. Would he or she make such a up-front statement? If not, what parts would the narrator want to hide or soften? How would the simple statements be rephrased in order to make the narrator more comfortable? Make those changes.
  3. If the narrator had a captive audience, how would he/she change the remaining phrases in order to make them more interesting? In other words, what is the narrator’s storytelling voice? Because that is what narrators are doing: telling a story. Pick two or three words or phrases and make some simple changes: add adjectives, replace nouns with different nouns, or cut words to create surprising juxtapositions (“true love and kill someone”).

Play with your sentence(s) and see what you get. If you’re having fun, it’s a good sign.

Good luck.

An Interview with Kelly Luce

2 May
Kelly Luce's debut collection of stories will be released in October by A Strange Object.

Kelly Luce’s debut collection of stories, Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail, will be released in October by A Strange Object.

Not many writer biographies can go toe-to-toe with the condensed history of Kelly Luce: She once attended a fiction seminar in Bulgaria, she was the writer-in-residence at the house where Jack Kerouac lived while writing Dharma Bums, and her forthcoming collection of stories has the knockout title Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaka Grows a Tail.

In this interview, Luce discusses first sentences, the challenge of finding the right publisher, and books that make her say, “Oh! Oohhhhh!”

Michael Noll

The story has a perfect first sentence: simple, yet absolutely essential to the story. It accomplishes in seven words what some writers spend paragraphs doing: creating and then breaking a routine in order to find where the story begins. What was your approach to writing this opening?

Kelly Luce

It’s funny; when I read this question I thought about the first sentence (“Since Rooey died, I’m no longer myself.”) and felt sure that it had been there since the start, from draft one. It seems like such an obvious opening. Maybe too obvious, you know? Then I dug up my early drafts. After having a drink to brace myself, I was able to face them…and I discovered that that line didn’t show up until draft 7. I don’t remember what the process was like that brought me to write it. Maybe this is a testament to how hard it is to put into words what is simple and true.

Michael Noll

Very early in the story, this paragraph appears:

“Here’s a story: two people are in trouble and the wrong one dies. There’s been a cosmic mix-up, but there’s nothing anyone can do about it, and they all live sadly ever after. The end.”

I love this paragraph because of its speed. The distance between “two people are in trouble” and “the wrong one dies” is vast—an entire story lies in between—and yet the paragraph doesn’t bother with any of that. It keeps rushing along, moving from the comedy (in the Shakespearean sense) of “cosmic mix-up” to the tragedy of “they all live sadly ever after.” Is this speed something you purposefully strive and revise for, or is it present in the earliest drafts?

Kelly Luce

Thank you. Though this paragraph also came fairly late in the drafting process, after I decided to try introducing the cover-story subplot, it came out fully formed in one of those rare moments when the writing goes on auto-pilot for a few lines. Rhythm and sound is one of my favorite things about writing, the way syllables and commas pile up and suddenly stop, the way long sentences full of short words interact with short ones made of long words, the interplay between vowels and consonants, the way internal rhyme can create gravity. It becomes very physical. So I feel like the answer to your question is, both: I strive and revise for appropriate rhythm, and sometimes it happens in draft one; other times the conditions aren’t right for it to show up until draft ten.

Michael Noll

When I was in graduate school, the term “magical realism” was popular, mostly due to the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie. There weren’t a lot of American writers working in that style, and some critics wondered if it was possible to use it in this country. Yet here we are a few years later, and the most influential American short story writers are Aimee Bender and George Saunders, whose absurdist, fantastical stories are perhaps an American adaptation of magical realism. Your writing also seems to fall into this category, so I’m curious how you would explain its appeal. How did the American short story move from the dirty realism of Raymond Carver to the contemporary mixture of fantasy/comic-book/genre/absurdist/supernatural elements?

Kelly Luce

I’d love to know more about this, myself. I have no idea why the American short story has moved beyond Carver’s realism, other than to say that things always change, and what’s fashionable in one era is sort of inevitably not in the next. I mean, what made Carver who he was as a writer (other than Gordon Lish)? What was he shifting away from? That might help us figure out why we’ve moved on from his example, at least somewhat. It could be that this generation of writers and readers is reacting to that generation, looking for something different, or at least being willing to consider something different. Certainly other countries have not suffered as much (I consider it a suffering) from a dearth of imaginative/non-realistic writing during this time. What was it about America, specifically, that made realism the desired form of expression during that time?
Still, from what I’ve read of lit mags and recently released collections, as well as at workshops I’ve participated in during recent years, I’d say the dirty realist story still has quite a following. Maybe, with the advent of online publishing, magazines have been able to take a few more chances on what they publish, so there’s both more supply and demand of the weirder stuff. Or maybe the rise of the reputable online venue let publishers who were outside the box get a foot in the box. A story from my collection, for example, was published by the Kenyon Review Online, which purports to publish more experimental work than the regular KR. Would they have printed my story five, six years ago, in KR proper? I don’t know. But a lot of readers have been able to connect with that story and say, hey, this is my kind of thing and I want more, and we’re lucky that there are places like Fairy Tale Review and KRO and Unstuck and a ton of others meeting that demand.
We all loved reading as kids, and kids’ books are often extremely imaginative. In this age of extended adolescence and “be yourself” messages, maybe those writers who wanted to play a bit more with fantasy/genre/supernatural stuff felt free enough to do so. Or maybe like me, they read Girl in the Flammable Skirt or Pastoralia and went, Oh! Oohhhhh!
Michael Noll

You’re a really talented writer with an enviable body of work—stories in reputable journals, prestigious fellowships. Your debut collection of stories, Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail, will be released in October, and reviewers will almost certainly compare the writing to that of Aimee Bender and Karen Russell, two highly regarded and popular writers.

A Strange Object is an independent press in Austin that publishes books that take risks, buck form, and build warm dwellings in dark places.

A Strange Object is an independent press in Austin that publishes books that take risks, buck form, and build warm dwellings in dark places.

As a result, your book seems like it would be awfully desirable from a publisher’s perspective.

Yet when readers open it, they won’t find the name of a major, New York-based publisher. Instead, they’ll see the name of a new independent press based in Austin—A Strange Object. Can you write a little about how this relationship with A Strange Object came about? What makes A Strange Object a great partner for your collection?

Kelly Luce

Will you marry me? Or can I pay you to come over every day and tell me nice things?

The relationship with A Strange Object started a few years ago, when Jill Meyers was editor of American Short Fiction and accepted a short-short of mine for a series on their website. That’s how I met her and Callie Collins, who worked at ASF as well. When they started A Strange Object, I was one of the writers they contacted about submitting a MS.

I always had a sense that I wanted this book to go to an indie press, and that my novel, which I’ve been at for a few years, would be the New York book. Maybe it’s because I heard so many rumors about story collections being treated like redheaded step-kids by the big house publishers, or maybe it’s because I never had the guts to push my agent, who represented my novel, to do anything with the stories. A\SO is the place for this book, absolutely. They get the strangeness, they love things about it I’d forgotten, and through editing they’ve made it a way better book than it was when I submitted it to them. The design is gorgeous, smart, clean. The cover artist is incredible. When you’re working with a small press, you’re pressed right up against the taste of the people who run it. And these guys are like…I don’t know. They’re not like anybody, which is the point. I have a crush on them.

May 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

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