At our most recent Ekphrasis meeting, Richard shared what he has been learning from a book called Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One & Never Lets Them Go.
The main premise was to write an opening sentence that introduces the story-worthy problem that the book will deal with, to create tension already in those first few words, and to set up the ideas that will be important throughout the book. So then we read part of the first chapter of my novel-in-progress Ready-Made Grave. And here’s what I had for the first paragraph:
It was a bright and shiny day. There was a soft crunch: a bird’s nest fell on the gravel inside the tall gates. Vera cocked her head, sending her hair in a waterfall over one shoulder. Shadows curled and crooked all over her poised figure. The shade of one spike touched the naked hatchlings, whose beaks hinged wide, panting. Vera gazed at the chicks, then turned away. Her silver dress was still; a violin at her feet was quiet in its case. She turned her cool glance down the street.
So, I still like that opening, because it sets up most of the important themes of the novel. And the first sentence is, as maybe you gathered, a joke: the opposite of the infamous It was a dark and stormy night. But not everybody present at the meeting got the joke, which meant that to them, that first sentence was really lame. I’m not willing to take the risk that upwards of 50% of potential readers will find my first sentence boring. Therefore, I am toying with new first sentence options, and I would like your opinion on them. Each of them would, of course, lead to a new whole first paragraph. I’ve got a few priorities with this first sentence. I want to:
– set the stage, physically (outside the tall gates of a cemetery) and emotionally (there’s a stark contrast between the beautiful day and gorgeous setting vs. the dark turmoil of the characters’ psyches and the fact that the beautiful place is FULL OF DEAD BODIES).
– The opening is supposed to be a genre cue hinting: Murder Mystery!
– focus on place, not people. So I don’t really like the options that name or even mention Vera too early, because (1) she’s not the main character and (2) it’s really not about people yet; it’s about place and (3) the cemetery is the main character.
Here, then, are the options. Please leave a comment telling me which ones, or which parts of which ones, you like best!
- The tall gates were the only way in, and the only way out.
- The cemetery’s tall gates were the only way in and the only way out.
- On top of the tall gates, an angel thrust his first into the air, nearly overbalancing.
- A stone angel poised on top of the tall gates, his fist thrust into the air, his massive bulk teetering over the quiet girl who stood in his shadow below.
- Into the glorious summer sun, there fell a soft crunch: a bird’s nest had fallen on the gravel inside the tall gates.
- The naked baby birds lay dying in the sunlight.
- The naked baby birds lay dying. Sun and shade clashed together over their nest, their grave.
- A quiet girl stood in the shadow of the tall gates, watching a nest of baby birds dying in the sunlight.
- As Vera stood motionless in the shadow of the tall gates, there was a soft crunch: a bird’s nest fell on the gravel beside her.
- As Vera stood motionless in the morning sunlight, there was a soft crunch: a bird’s nest had fallen from the first of the stone angel far above, teetering on top of the tall gates.