Posted in Craft of writing, Editing & Revision, fiction, Revision, Writing exercises

Three Elements for Power-packed First Sentences

INTRODUCTION: Writers continue to learn the craft no matter where they are in their writing development. Recently, I read in the January 2022 issue of The Writer magazine an article by Alison Acheson, “In The Beginning: Three elements that create a strong opening sentence,” pages 26-29. First sentences draw the reader in and give them a sense of character, setting, and emotion. They carry a lot of weight to gain your readers interest and trust in your writing. The author suggests that there are three elements to carry that responsibility of reeling in the reader. Here is my take on reading her article. I hope you will reader her article.

Three Elements in First Sentences

CHARACTER: Readers want to have a sense of the main character(s). We may not know their names, but we know something about them that will show up again or throughout the novel.

SETTING: The first sentence will offer a sense of place, maybe a location, time in history, or an event.

EMOTION: This may be indirect or implied by the setting or action or event. We likely won’t be told in the first sentence what the emotion is, but the writer will hint at it. We will get a sense of it.

EXAMPLE

I’ll offer an example from Ernest Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms. I’ll give you the first sentence then I’ll dissect it to learn what Hemingway accomplished in using those three elements. Your take on it maybe somewhat different than mine, but that’s okay.

HEMINGWAY in Farewell to Arms. “In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountain.”

CHARACTER: The word, “we,” implies two or more people. The rest of the sentence tells us that they live together in a house. My assumption before reading the book would be that it is a couple, which it is.

SETTING: “In the late summer of that year,” tells me it is about a point in time that we will learn more about later. But it happens in a season that is waning, which gives me the feeling that something is in decline, about to hibernate, or die.

The phrase, “a house in a village,” makes me think of a remote location, perhaps isolated.

The prepositional phrase, “across the river and plain,” again gives me the feeling of being in a valley far from the big picture, or where the action occurs.

Finally, the last expression, “to the mountain,” tells me they are looking to what is or might be happening on that mountain. Or perhaps it is just a goal, a wish, or even an illusion.

EMOTION: The setting has carried a lot of metaphorical and emotional weight of distance, foreboding, remoteness. A moment in time that might entail a connection, an affair, an event that does not bode well.

Summary

As you can see, Hemingway’s sentence deftly implies a decision by his main character’s to give up his arms to fight in World War I. The relationship between he and his lover is waning because they are looking at what they need and want, which is not each other.

What’s next in the coming weeks?

Look next week for another example taken from a narrative nonfiction classic. The next week another one from a short story; and finally the last week the example from my own novel, Song of Herself, to be published next year (soon I hope).

What about you?

Does this help you think about the first sentence in your story, novel or narrative nonfiction? Examine your first sentence and tell us what you find.

Posted in Craft of writing, Editing & Revision, First Sentences, Memoir writing

Three Elements to Create a Strong Opening Sentence

INTRODUCTION: Writers continue to learn the craft no matter where they are in their writing development. Recently, I read in the January 2022 issue of The Writer magazine an article by Alison Acheson, “In The Beginning: Three elements that create a strong opening sentence,” pages 26-29. Opening sentences have a lot of weight to carry. The author suggests that there are three elements to carry that responsibility of reeling in the reader. Here is my take on reading her article.

Three Elements in First Sentences

CHARACTER: Readers want to have a sense of the main character(s). We may not know their names, but we know something about them that will show up again or throughout the novel.

SETTING: The first sentence will offer a sense of place, maybe a location, time in history, or an event.

EMOTION: This may be indirect or implied by the setting or action or event. We likely won’t be told in the first sentence what the emotion is, but the writer will hint at it. We will get a sense of it.

EXAMPLE

After last week’s example take from fiction, this week I offer a nonfiction example from Frank McCourt’s memoir, Angela’s Ashes . I’ll give you the first sentence then I’ll dissect it to learn what McCourt accomplished in using these three elements. Your take on it may be somewhat different than mine, but that’s okay.

McCourt’s first sentence in Angela’s Ashes, “My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born.”

CHARACTER: The reference to the writer’s father and mother suggests they who set the action in motion. Even if we don’t know if the mother and father will be key actors throughout the memoir, we do know that they made a decision that impacted the antagonist, Frank McCourt’s life.

SETTING: The phrase, “… should have stayed in New York,” implies they are all on a journey to some place else. They have left a thriving city where previously good things had happened – the couple met, married, and gave birth to Frank.

EMOTION: The setting, like Hemingway’s, carries a lot of metaphorical and emotional weight. In this case, it provides a hint of regret, remorse, or longing for what is left behind.

Summary

As you can see, the relationship between him and his parents implies that McCourt is young and therefore reliant on his parents at this point in time. His first sentence deftly implies a decision by parents that will come to influence or impact McCourt gravely. What we do not know is that Angela is his mother, nor that her ashes are the cigarette ashes of despair.

As writers, when we can weave or at least hint at the three elements, character, place, and emotion in the first sentence of a story, whether fiction or nonfiction, we have successfully sent a message to readers they are in capable hands.

Next week, I’ll take the first sentence from a fiction short story writer. Join me in this series of investigations on first sentences that convey character, setting, and emotion in some significant way.

Posted in Craft of writing, Memoir writing, Revision, Travel Writing, Writing exercises, Writing Groups

Endings: The Power and Types of Endings

ENDINGS. Philip Lopate in To Show and To Tell talks about a typology of endings. Here are the kinds that he mentions. This is a summarized list and paraphrased in some cases by me. My travel writing group that meets every two weeks, discussed this list in our last Zoom time together. We are eager to use this list and see where it takes us in add the power and punch of a satisfying ending. Join us in discussing these through this blog post.

Step #1: Identify the type of ending you have used in one of your last stories. 

  1. An image (metaphorical or real)
  2. A pithy saying in a clever or humorous way
  3. A line of dialogue 
  4. A joke (use this one with care)
  5. A question
  6. A quote
  7. An ellipsis (…)
  8. A return of a refrain or a different spin on the phrase 
  9. A new insight
  10. A resolve
  11. A sigh, a shrug, a sudden mood change
  12. A platitude, ONLY IF it is humorous or non-preachy 
  13. A summary in the form of a series of semicolons
  14. Restating conflicting elements (ideas, images, thoughts, etc.) and how to live with them 
  15. ________________________________
  16. ________________________________
  17. ________________________________

Step 2: Develop multiple endings to your next story by trying several of these types of endings. 

Step 3: Choose three of your favorite endings you have written. Think through those and select the most impactful for your story.

Step 4: Add to these types of endings overtime from your own experience and from your reading of others work.

Which ones have you used? Which ones would you like to use in the future? Which ones have you added to this list? I’m curious to learn what you think about the types of endings to our stories.

Posted in Craft of writing, Revision, Writing exercises

Edit your own Writing

Are you ever in a crunch when you don’t have time for your writing group to critique your work? Working on your own and your client says your work sounds too repetitious? Wish you could see the problems in your own work that you see in other’s? Then this post is a first step for you.

Editing your own writing—to find the problems and develop solutions for them—is work. Often, revision is not considered the fun part of writing, but it can be when we see the results of our hard-won success.

While teaching a writing course this month, I have included an assessment of our sentence structures. This will help us see the multiple ways we start sentences and how we can add variety to our sentences and paragraphs to improve readability.

I decided to apply the assignment for my students to my own work as an illustration. When I did that, I saw my example essay still needed revision. So I went to work to get it ready for submission to publications.

Let me offer the assignment and then two paragraphs from my illustrative essay. One paragraph is varied, so I will not make changes; on the other hand, the second one needs work.

ASSIGNMENT

Analyze each paragraph in your story to see if your sentences start in a variety of ways to create interest for the reader.

  1. Subject-verb structure. EX. He walked away. She ran to town.
  2. Prepositional phrase. EX. For too long, we’ve put up with this. With that said, I left.
  3. Transition word. EX. However, I concede. Subsequently, the lady gave in. 
  4. Gerund or “-ing” word. EX. Hunting for shoes, I found a new dress.
  5. Conjunction phrases. EX. While shopping for shoes, I found a dress. Because life is difficult, we stumble on.
  6. Incomplete sentences. EX. Right on time. Never again. For the cause.

EXAMPLE #1 FROM MY OWN WORK

This paragraph is taken from a story when I was fifteen-years-old, trying to find the right souvenir to take home to my mother from my first trip abroad.

Finally, my eyes land on world globes. One would mean a lot to Mom because we study missions at church. Like her, I enjoy learning geography by studying the world map and learning about other cultures by reading about missionaries in other countries. Mom has rarely been outside of Arkansas—me either until now.

Assessment of sentence variety for purposes of revision (3 of the 6 types of sentence starts)

  • Sentence #1 Transition word or phrase
  • Sentence #2 Subject/verb
  • Sentence #3 Conjunction word or phrase
  • Sentence #4 Subject/verb

EXAMPLE #2 FROM MY OWN WORK

The following paragraph also is taken from the same story.

Some globes stand on the floor; others sit on tabletops. The globes look like they were made from old-world parchment, like expensive antiques. The wooden stand in which one sets would suit our house—and Mother. She will smile when she pulls it out of the box and exclaims, “I love it.”

Analysis (1 of the six ways to start sentences–pretty boring)

  • Sentence #1 Subject/verb
  • Sentence #2 Subject/verb
  • Sentence #3 Subject/verb
  • Sentence #4 Subject/verb

REVISION ON EXAMPLE #2

There are infinite ways to make the revisions, but here is one attempt to add variety to my sentence structures in a single paragraph.

While a few globes stand on the floor; others sit on tabletops. Leaning toward the latter, I like the ones that have an old-fashioned, weathered look. The maple wood frame in which one sits would suit our house. And suit Mother. I can imagine her opening it. After prying open the box, she’ll pull it out and look at me to exclaim, “I love it.”

Assessment of sentence variety (5 of the 6 types of sentence starts–and less boring)

  • Sentence #1 Conjunction
  • Sentence #2 Gerund (-ing word)
  • Sentence #3 Incomplete sentence
  • Sentence #4 Subject/verb
  • Sentence #5 Preposition

 

That’s the fun of revision, to make your writing easier to read for your audience.