Sunday, April 3, 2011

First lines and backstory

"Call me Ishmael"
"Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice."
"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair"

Let's face it, many a great novel start with a great line, a memorable line.  Something that not only captures the reader and draws him in, but stays with him long after he has finished reading and lingers, long into posterity.  I speak of this because yesterday on Facebook, Smashwords asked us "Smashers" (that's what we are called) to post the first line of our 4th chapter.  So you're thinking - the fourth chapter?  Who cares?   The first line of my 4th chapter was "Jewell walked into the women’s locker room at the hospital."  This is a rather boring, non-descript line.  So I looked at the first line of the 4th chapter of the book I'm currently reading "Etched in Bone" by Adrian Phoenix "Fury pulsed through Dante like blood."  Wow!  So I flipped to a random chapter - 10 "The trumpet blast faded, rumbling across the horizon like long rolling thunder." Wow!  16 "Dante steered himself toward Bourbon street, hunger drumming a savage tempo through his veins."  You get my point. So I started reaching for other books, and I began to see a pattern emerge.  Sure, every once in a while there was a mundane line, but for the most part, the first lines of chapters hit you like the first lines of books.  There is nothing mundane about the first line of a chapter.

Now a few words about backstory and bringing your character's past into the present.  Adrian Phoenix does this in a way that may or may not work for many authors.  There are three things she does.  First, Dante, the main character, was the subject of experimentation when he was young.  Throughout the story, she has the other characters in the book review his files, thereby bringing bits and pieces of Dante's past into the present.  The second thing she does is flashbacks.  Dante slips into the past periodically, having difficulty distinguishing present situations from past situations.  These all help to catch the reader up on things that we have not read before.  The third thing she does helps to remind the reader of things that have happened in her previous books.  When reflecting on something that has occurred previously, she will flashback and actually include text from the previous incident in her writing.  She actually uses these three elements very effectively, however - I would warn most writers away from her style of writing.  Somehow, I feel that if most people could do this easily, they would.  It seems to me that this use of flashback is difficult to master.

For us newbies, narrative backstory such as that used by Adrian Phoenix would probably bore and alienate the reader.  Thus, we need to find more creative ways (or perhaps different creative ways) to let our readers know the important parts of our characters' pasts.  And that's the key word "important."  The reader doesn't need to know everything.  The reader only needs to know those things that affect the character's decisions or the character's motivation for reaching the goal.  You, on the other hand, should know all of the mundane details about your character, because that will help you to understand what drives your character.

I know - this isn't the Blarney Stone
as I have kissed the real thing,
hanging upside down atop Blarney
Castle in County Cork Ireland, but it
showed the legend and it's a cool pic!
 So how do we let the reader know about the character's past?  Well, a little narrative, a little dialog, a little inner dialog, and perhaps a little prayer to the writing gods.  I also suggest you kiss the Blarney Stone as it is well known that anyone who kisses the Blarney Stone will be sent forth with the gift of eloquence.


Cora Zane said...

Awesome post! I'm about to go sort through some of the books by my desk to see what the first chapter lines look like. You've got me curious now... *eyebrow wiggle*

LinneaHall said...

Well, I must say that I have a great mentor who encourages me to read books and learn from what I read. She's really smart and seems to know what she's talking about!

Chris Adonn said...

Okay, I am addicted to this site. It's so much more than just a blog; it’s a veritable fountain of useful information that warrants perusal and much consideration. I thoroughly enjoy reading your opinions. I find them insightful and very worthwhile.
I too am about to rummage through my book collection. First I will start with my own book and then I'll see how th Pros' do it ;-)

LinneaHall said...

I have to tell you, reading the craft books, then comparing them to the books you read on a regular basis, then comparing them to your own work really forces your hand. You can do nothing but improve!


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