Writing Tips & Tools

Friday, August 10, 2007

Lesson 26: General Story Techniques

by Bonnie Calhoun

Today we continue with Donald Maass' Writing a Breakout Novel.

What I am going to endeavor to do here is present truncated versions of each of the lessons in the workbook. This will by no means suffice as an alternative to reading the book...or the workbook. I hope it piques your appetite to buy the books. They are invaluable reading and reference!

Today's lesson is in Section THREE: General Story Techniques.

Oh, BTW...I've been using this book as a review for the manuscript I just edited, so I had to work ahead of you guys so that I was done by the time I leave for Phila!!

Today we're going to look at First and Last lines. No doubt about it, a great first line pulls us immediately into a story. It hooks. It intrigues. It opens a world in which things already are happening, in which discovery awaits.

Or it can, sadly, lie flat on the page doing nothing helpful all all, merely setting a scene or in some other way getting ready for the story rather than telling it. Weak first lines greet us like a limp handshake.

What makes a first line effective? Part of it would be the intrigue factor. It's the element that makes us wonder..."What does that mean? or "What happens next?...and therefore leads us to the next line where we may find the answer.

All of this usually happens so fast that we don't notice it. In the few seconds it takes to read an opening line, our subconscious minds are already racing ahead!

Just as surely as an intriguing first line can draw, a stunning exit sentence can propel a reader onward in wonder...wondering perhaps, when your next novel will be out!

Have you yet reached the last line of your current novel? If you have, go back. If you haven't, pause when you get there. Take the time to get your last line just right. Whether it leads forward or lifts our spirits or softly closes a door. Make it a line we will remember...Especially when we see your next novel on the bookstore shelves!

Step 1: What is the intrigue factor in your opening line? What question does it pose, or what puzzle does it present?

Step 2:If you are not able to answer the question in the first step, try shortening your first line. If that doesn't work, audition your second line for the lead spot. Or combine elements from your first paragraph into one short, supercharged sentence. Whatever you do, choose or construct a different first line.

Note: the one thing that all good first lines have in common is the intrigue factor.

Follow-up: Work on your last line until it has wit, a touch of poetry, or a sense of dawning peace. Try it out on others!

Conclusion: Whether it is a sigh of satisfaction, a soaring passage of word art, or nothing more than a clever exit line, put the same effort into your last line as went into your first. A book needs front and back covers to hold together; in the same way a novel needs strong brackets to bind it!


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