On First Paragraphs

“Call me Ishmael.”

This short sentence is probably the most famous of famous first lines of English language novels. And, maybe how you would expect a post entitled “On First Paragraphs” to begin.

No surprises there. And that’s the problem. The first sentence, the first paragraph of any piece of writing—even a blog—should contain some kind of surprise. At least something fresh, something you weren’t expecting to hear.

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20 Ways to Make It Better # 17—Beginnings & Endings

 # 17. Beginnings – Endings

Beginnings Begin at the beginning, not before. What does that mean? Write as much of the back story as you need to get going, but then whack it off and start where things get interesting. The “inciting incident” those who teach call it. Start the story with a promise of what the story is about. With a short story, start as close to the end as possible.

Some of my favorite beginnings:

Sth, I know that woman. She used to live with a flock of birds on Lenox Avenue. Know her husband, too. He fell for an eighteen-year-old girl with one of those deep down, spooky loves that made him so sad and happy he shot her just to keep the feeling going. When the woman, her name is Violet, went to the funeral to see the girl and to cut her dead face they threw her to the floor and out of the church. She ran, then, through all that snow, and when she got back to her apartment she took the birds from their cages and set them out the windows to freeze or fly, including the parrot that said, “I love you. – from Beloved, by Toni Morrison

I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice–not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany. – from A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving

The Santa Ana’s blew in hot from the desert, shriveling the last of the spring grass into whiskers of pale straw. Only the oleanders thrived, their delicate poisonous blooms, their dagger green leaves. We could not sleep in the hot dry nights, my mother and I. I woke up at midnight to find her bed empty. I climbed to the roof and easily spotted her blond hair like a white flame in the light of the three quarter moon. – from White Oleander, by Janet Fitch

Endings Good endings stay with us because they resonate back to the beginning and give us more to think about. Does the ending allude to a deeper story? Is the ending satisfying? Throughout the story we’ve wanted the reader to say, “and then what happened?” With our endings, we want her to say, “Tell me another one.” The best ending is the one that is followed by what Tim O’Brien calls “a holy silence.”

A few of my favorite endings:

Tomas turned the key and switched on the ceiling light. Tereza saw two beds pushed together, one of them flanked by a bedside table and lamp. Up out of the lampshade, startled by the overhead light, flew a large nocturnal butterfly that began circling the room. The strains of the piano and violin rose up weakly from below. – from The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milo Kundera

The people of the Flat melted into the darkness. Danny’s friends still stood looking at the smoking ruin. They looked at one another strangely, and then back at the burned house. And after a while they turned and walked slowly away, and no two walked together. – from Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck

The beginning of The Catcher in the Rye is often quoted; I like the way the end circles back to the beginning:

If you want to know the truth, I don’t know what I think about it. I’m sorry I told so many people about it. About all I know is, I sort of miss everybody I told about.  … Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you’ll start missing everybody. – from The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger

Here’s something to try: Choose 10 or 15 or 25 of your favorite books or best sellers in the genre you’re writing, read the beginning—the first paragraph, the first page, even the first chapter then go to the end, the last few pages, the last page, the last paragraph, the last sentence. Read as a student. Keep notes on what you discover. Let stories teach you how to write a story.

What’s your favorite beginning? Ending?





20 Ways to Make It Better — Way # 8

#8—Embrace language

Language is more than words. It is music and rhythm, sound, and rhyme, texture and layers. Language is art and graffiti, attitude and place, geography and history. Language is family and what you heard at the kitchen table and on the back porch and hollered up from the stairs on a Saturday morning. Language is what you do with words and it is the silence between the words.

“Language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no name,” said Toni Morrison.

Savor it. Roll vowels around in your mouth and hold consonants between your teeth. Place metaphors beneath your tongue.

Go for the figurative. Be poetic. Find the fresh way to describe something. Use at least one surprising word in every sentence. Read poetry beneath a full moon, in your car while you’re stuck in traffic, to your pillow before you go to sleep. Say words out loud because you love the sound of them. Keep a bowl of words on your writing table. Snack food.

Write 25 words for rain, 15 for wind, 33 for love and 6 for the way new grass feels under your bare feet. Write 11 words for feet.

Weed out clichés and word packages. What’s a cliché? My teacher told me, “If you’ve heard it, read it, or used it before… it’s cliché.” What’s a word package? A phrase that’s too familiar, too overused, not exactly a cliché, but close enough to to call family. Make it fresher.

Study authors you love to read and whose language resonates with you. Copy passages into your notebook so you sense the physicality of their language. When you come upon phrases that make you catch your breath, write them down. Use them as prompts for your writing practice.

Use the language of your fears, give voice to your terrors, call them up in the night and name them. Do this too with your joys and your pleasures. Write in the language of your prayers.

“Language is the only homeland,” said Czeslaw Milosz.

Know this: You will spend your whole writing life creating the language with which to tell your stories.

When was the last time language stopped you in your tracks? Whose use of language do you admire?

(A Writer’s Book of Days has more to say about words and language.)