Sitting atop his doghouse, Snoopy writes, “It was a dark and stormy night…” for the thousandth time. Ever helpful, Linus suggests in order to sell his work, Snoopy should take a different approach. The result? “It was a stormy and dark night…”
After years of work, I only saw Snoopy add one additional line to his ongoing work: “Suddenly, a shot rang out!” Snoopy is full of persistence, but one might question if writing is his forte. Still, he understands one very important aspect of being an author: Make the first line count.
In my years as a journalist, copywriter, consultant and author, I’ve found this to be true regardless of genre. Readers must be baited into a story with the first sentence and hooked by the end of the first graph.
“Call me Ishmael.” 1
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
“The sky above the port was the color of television, turned to a dead channel.”
“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”
Crafting an intriguing first sentence to set your hook can be one of the hardest parts of writing; following through on that hook with a great first graph sometimes seems overwhelming. I’ve known authors who have slaved away at first sentences and first graphs, rewriting them again and again after the book is complete—crafting them, and still missing the mark because they lack one key element.
Author Stephen King put it this way in a 2013 interview with The Atlantic,2 “…a good opening sentence really begins with voice…. People come to books looking for something. But they don’t come for the story, or even for the characters. They certainly don’t come for the genre. I think readers come for the voice.”
The author’s voice is different from the author’s style, it’s the distinctive quality that readers can recognize and with which they can connect—beyond genre and style. King asserts, “With really good books, a powerful sense of voice is established in the first line.” I agree.
Style is something you can mimic, something that evolves and changes with time, genre and even storyline. Voice is the element of you. It’s your personality, your language, your vision poured out onto the page.
Does that mean that you throw word-craft out the window to let your voice flow free? Probably not. It means you find a process that allows your voice to come through, and you hone that process to produce the best work you can. It also means you find beta readers, collaborators, and editors who help to fine-tune your work without compromising your voice.
So, how does an author find his or her voice? By writing, of course! Just as you speak differently than other people may, you shouldn’t write just like everyone else. If not within your current project, try some free writing exercises to experiment with your voice and how it applies to various genres and characters. The point is to find your natural flow, the element of you that will draw readers into your work and make a connection.
1. 100 best first lines from novels: http://bit.ly/1TpXM76
2. Why Stephen King Spends ‘Months and Even Years’ Writing Opening Sentences: http://theatln.tc/1dke5RI