Thursday, October 22, 2009

Begin as You Mean to Continue

I'm putting on my writer's craft hat today. Yesterday I watched a movie with my youngest daughter (who's having a birthday today!) that made me start thinking about "tone."

The movie was Dragonheart with Dennis Quaid and Sean Connery. With two A-listers like that you'd expect a well-told tale. Not so much.

The problem was that the director couldn't decide if the story was a comedy or a tragedy. And it descended pretty sadly into farce worthy of the Three Stooges at times.

A steady diet of nothing but drama gets depressing and I'm totally in favor of a few light-hearted moments to break the tension (like Twilight's baseball playing vamps.) Likewise a comedy needs at least one serious "moment of truth" scene (a la Jim Carey in "Liar, Liar" when he tells his son he loves him.) But the storyteller needs to make sure he/she doesn't give her audience/reader whiplash when the switch is made.

How do we do that? By setting the "tone" of a piece and sticking to it.

If the story starts with elegant word choices, your comedy is going to be in the form of witty repartee, not a food fight. If your hero and heroine are dramatic, the quirky secondary character can carry comedy ball without making your reader blink twice (like the little monk in Van Helsing.) If the story starts with madcap comedy, slow the pace down with seriousness only when your H/h has their big "a-ha!" moment.

Basically, how you start is how you should finish. While maintaining the same flavor throughout the story.

Which brings me to to that all important first line. Bet you could quote a few that have stayed with you. Here are a few of mine:

Call me Ishmael. (Moby Dick) In just three words, we know the story is going to deal with themes of biblical proportions.

She woke in the body of a dead friend. (Carolina Moon/Nora Roberts) A succint intro into a serious, emotional thriller with strong paranormal elements.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife (Pride & Prejudice/Jane Austen) The incomparable Miss A invites us to her witty banquet with these well-chosen words.

I thought it might be fun today to share some first lines. If you're a writer, please post the first line of your current WIP. If you're a reader, pick a first line that has stuck with you.

I'll start:

This is positively, absolutely the last time, Lady Viola Preston promised herself as she squeezed through the lower storey window.

And now it's your turn!


Barbara Wallace said...

Wow - first comment. Okay, here's the (current) first line of my WIP:

Alex Markoff wasn't a dwarf.

And since I'm also a reader, the one that sticks in my head always:

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.

EmilyBryan said...

Great first line, Barbara. It raises questions in my mind.

I also like that you mark it as (current). When I'm working on a story, every--including the first line--is in a constant state of flux.


Susan Higginbotham said...

WIP: “The queen has been seasick again,” the Marchioness of Suffolk announced to her husband as he stood on the deck of the Cokke John.

Christie Craig said...

Okay. . . my WIP hasn't been "first-line" polished yet, I always try to tweak it later, but Divorced, Desperate and Deceived coming out Nov. 24th is:

Kathy Callahan neeed a man, but Hell would be renting ice skates and serving bubblegum-flavored snow cones before she chose one of the three specimens presently being offered to her.


Colleen Thompson said...

These are just delicious. What fun.

Since I'm reading page proofs at the moments, here are the opening lines from my March 2010 release, Touch of Evil:

The fog slips in on death’s feet, then stoops to drink at the
water’s mirrored surface. In the eerie lakeside stillness, the
silvery layers mute everything, from the outraged caws of disturbed
crows to huge cypress trees grown shaggy with wiry,
gray-green moss.

(Talk about a contrast with all you witty folks!)

Penny Watson said...

Fun idea! Love it! Here's the first sentence from Sweet Inspiration, my debut novel coming out 12-02-09 from The Wild Rose Press.

"Surrounded by howling winds and a relentless fall of snow, Nicholas Sebastian Klaus studied the storefront across the street."

My sister figured out from this first sentence that the book was about Santa Claus (Well, actually Santa's eldest son). She's good!

Deb Stover said...

First line from THE GIFT, on sale October 27th, 2009.

Blood. Rivers of it, crashing streams of vivid color erupted from the corners of her mind and flooded her awareness until all she knew was terror.

Cara Davies said...

Nice one, Barbara.

I usually need two sentences, although my latest series contemporary started out with one:

"Oh, you have to be frigging kidding me."

Barbara Monajem said...

Since I gave a sample of my writing here on Monday, I won't do it again now, but here's the opening of a book I started reading last night and don't want to put down:

Miu's knees were shaking so badly that she thought she'd have to drop on all fours and crawl up the broad limestone ramp that disappeared into the dark, cool depths of the temple.

-- from The Hunt by Anne Marsh

Cara Davies said...

Oh and incidentally, I also saw Dragonheart on my birthday (in the theater, about seven years ago) and was similarly disappointed. Plus it cropped up as a pub trivia question a few weeks ago and lost me some points. Why can't you just leave everyone alone, Dragonheart?!

EmilyBryan said...

Oh, these are all wonderful and what a terrific mix of styles--from "hold onto your ribcage" funny to "read this with all the lights on" scary and everything in between!

I think it's great that I can tell what kind of story I'll be getting from the very start with each of them.

Jennifer Ashley/ Allyson James / Ashley Gardner said...

Ok, I think everyone will get where I'm going with this one:

"Thomas Dupree looked like every woman's wet dream in a tux."

:-) That's from "Mortal Sensations," a Heat novella out next June)

The opening for my Feb 2010 paranormal romance, Pride Mates:

"A girl walks into a bar... No, a human girl walks into a Shifter bar... "

Sandy said...

Great idea, Emily. Everyone has great first lines.

Here's mine, I'm not sure it will catch anyone's attention unless they read the whole paragraph.

From Addiction being released November 6th from Eirelander Publishing.

Alone at the White Chapel Memorial Gardens in Gladstone, Missouri, Jolene Dubois stared sightlessly down at her father's gray, flat headstone.

Beth said...

What a FANTASTIC idea. Do you mind if I use this on my blog in a few weeks (if I credit you w/the idea and link back to your blog)?

Your blog hit home with me. I have elements of humor, suspense and tragedy in my novel. Maybe I need to rethink it.

Here is my first line: Suzy’s wedding dress swished loudly as she paced.

It's women's fiction and a debut novel I've just finished--still editing.

Susanne Saville said...

What great first lines!!

Here's the first line of my Captain Devlin's Captive:

Jasabel Buchanan had yet to scream.

And here's one of my favorites - the first line from H.P. Lovecraft's The Thing On The Doorstep:

It is true that I have sent six bullets through the head of my best friend, and yet I hope to shew by this statement that I am not his murderer.

Rachel E. Moniz said...

This is neat,Emily!
From the WIP :
The full moon hung silently just above the western horizon and shined the last of its silvery light before disappearing in expectation of a brilliant June sunrise.

And my favorite first line of all:
Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.

Cynthia Owens said...

Hi Emily, here's the first line of my novel, In Sunshine or in Shadow:

Her worst enemy was her last hope.

And the first line of Coming Home, the soon-to-be-released sequel to In Sunshine or in Shadow:

He was going home.

EmilyBryan said...

Thanks you all for leaving first lines! I've really enjoyed seeing what you're working on.

Beth, absolutely you can use this idea on your blog. I'm so flattered! Thanks for the link back.

I think is there is a way to have different elements in your work, but the most successful stories are always more one thing than another. Everything--the comedy, suspense and tragedy--should point back to the main theme and tone.

Patricia Barraclough said...

"They meant to kill him." Honor's Spledour
"Donald MacAlister didn't die easy." The Wedding
"Bad things always happened during the night." Ransom
All by Julie Garwood. Short and to the point, the set the story up and set the tone in a few simple words.

Elle J Rossi said...


What a fantastic idea! Okay, here's mine:

She stood on the shores of Lake Michigan as the winds whipped and swirled around her.


B. A. Binns said...

Here's mine, from a YA WIP

The first day of second semester should mark the beginning of the end.

This is the beginning of a a kind of coming of age and discovering that the people around you aren't what they seem and hide aweful secrets story.

And from my adult Mainstream WIP

“Don’t you think a kid should be allowed to die in peace?”

Naturally, this is a suspense story, and that line is spoken by my psychopath to his current victim.

Joy Nash said...

Wow, these first lines are so much fun to read! Here's mine, from my WIP, Watchers: The Unforgiven:

The last thing Artur Camulus wanted to see in his flat was a goddamned candyass archangel.