Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Dissenting Opinion: First Sentences

Time for a guest post!  When I was looking for material to share while I was on vacation, Inquisitor M--noted author, editor, and pre-RCL inductee--offered to help out.  He had a great idea, but didn't quite get it finished before I left.  Now that it's here, however, I can assure you all that it was worth the wait.  Anyway, I'll let him take it from here...

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Greeting, ponyphiles!

Back when Chris asked for guest posts, he approached me about penning something in regard to my disagreements over the way he judges first sentences. I did some groundwork, but the post ended up too long every time, and then I had my bottom thoroughly spanked by depression for about a month.

Things are finally looking up, and the time has come to get this thing written. And this time, it is going to be as long as it needs to be, so buckle up and blame Chris.

Or Canada.

-Scott



It seems fair and right to use Chris’s own words to set the stage for this:

HEITSIBPMFTSIATRAEMTCR ("how effective is this sentence in both preparing me for the story I'm about to read, and encouraging me to continue reading;" pronounced like its spelled): [...] a one on that scale corresponds to "makes me less interested in continuing than I was before I read it," three is "does its job, but not memorable or gripping in and of itself," and five is "not only evocative and memorable, but a perfect fit for the story as well."

Setting aside any snide commentary about your quaint American-English punctuation-inside-the-quotation-marks silliness, there are two main issues I have the above idea:

1) I see little or no reason why a first line should fulfill any of these criteria alone.

2) I don’t necessarily want a first line to ‘prepare me’ for a story.

I will examine these two items as separate discussions. To examine the first issue, I decided to recruit some hapless victims volunteers to conduct a small survey about opening lines. My three lab rats, DJThomp, RainbowBob, and wYvern were first sent ten first sentences from stories on FimFiction. When they had each rated and commented on all ten, I sent them a second list of story openings, without mentioning that they were the same ten stories but with as many sentences/paragraphs added as I thought completed the story’s opening volley.

I thought it was important to get both numeric scores and comments for both categories as I didn’t know what to expect going in. I was half expecting to find that  nothing remotely interesting came from the experiment, but luckily that was not the case. Visiting all ten stories would be wasteful, so I’m going to pick on the more interesting results and post all the links at the end so you can look at the results sheets for yourself.

The hypothesis that I was putting on trial was that the first sentence exists solely for the purpose of taking you to the second sentence, and that it is the first conflict that does the biggest job of encouraging a reader to continue. It’s quite possible – even common – for a first sentence to encapsulate some degree of conflict, often a very abstract one, but I think it is wrong to grade it as if it is supposed to. What if a one-two combo of the first two lines actually makes for a better overall opening? What if it takes two (probably short) paragraphs and then you harpoon your reader squarely in the gut?

That’s perfectly valid, right? At the very least, shouldn’t we be encouraging some degree of experimentation rather than slamming the door shut by the way we talk about it?

The story that I thought would best exemplify the potential difference between how to look at an opening was Peaches, by Aquaman.

She wasn’t sure what was wrong with it. It didn’t look bruised or overripe. The juices trickling onto her hoof from the crescent chunk her teeth had taken out of it gave off a crisp scent, fresh as springtime. Certainly, the mare who had sold it to her cheap looked very pleased with herself. To be honest, though, it wasn’t anything physical about the piece of fruit she had balanced on her sole that bothered her. It was some intrinsic thing she couldn’t place, like there were some deep, unknowable part of her that was disgusted—almost offended—by what she had just willingly put into her mouth. It was good food, a perfectly fine meal for anypony who cared to try it, there was no doubt about that. But it wasn’t… she just couldn’t…

The first line drums up some abstract conflict (Mystery: reader vs information deficit), but overall it’s pretty short and… well, meh. What makes this example interesting is that the initial conflict exists almost solely to get you to read the opening passage, and the passage gives you the real conflict, delivered in a carefully constructed voice.

wYvern was instantly taken the opening line, rating it an 8, but then slapped it with full marks after reading the whole thing. He progressed from ‘[something] I might want to read’ to ‘I’d definitely want to read on’. Similarly, RainbowBob raised his score from a pitiful 4 to a vastly improved 7 after reading the full passage.

Here, the first sentence sets up the first paragraph; the first paragraph sets up the story. On these miscreants, it definitely seemed to work, and the fact that I chose it at all says something about the effect it had on me. Even DJ raised his score, if only by a single point – I don’t think the premise really grabbed him.

The second story that got some interesting responses was Obselescence  OBELISK THE TORMENTOR’s More Than You Know. It should be noted that DJThomp really doesn’t like present-tense narration, so we’ll talk about the other two.

A gentle breeze tugs at Twilight’s mane. Golden sunshine warms her coat. The intoxicating scent of honeysuckle envelops her, and she smiles as she drinks it in.

I feel that wYvern absolutely nailed my line of thinking on selecting this story:

“This creates a picture, and a sensation. I can feel the breeze tugging at my own mane uhh… hair, I mean. That said, it’s not a hook: I don’t feel very intrigued to read on,” he said, rating it a 4. For him, it didn’t get better upon reading the rest: “Very on the purple side of prose. And, again, no conflict. No immediacy. No reason for me to want to know more. 2/10”

But where the lack of obvious hook left wYvern adrift of beach of soggy purple mush, RainbowBob got a full-bore injection to the cerebral cortex: “3-I’ve seen this before, not the best of hooks,” to “7: Mmmm, delicious imagery always suckers me in. And quite brilliantly written at that.”

The first sentence is not a thing that can be separated from the whole and judged. It is exactly what it needs to be, prioritizing tone and style over factual content. Sure, it went both ways with our panel, but the point is to show that it needs to be judged in context, not that it is objectively good.

As far as ratings go, there were two stories that confidently walked off with almost all the points on offer for them, and the difference between them makes it worth examining them both. They are Biblical Monsters, by Horse Voice, and The New Crop, by xjuggernaughtx.

On December 14th, at 3:15 AM, Adams woke me with a loud knock on my front door.
"Put your boots on," he said when I answered. "There's a biblical monster in my house."

10s all round. Interestingly, the first line alone scored 8/8/10 respectively. There’s no question it’s a barnstormer, but it’s the interplay between all three sentences that really makes it stand out among the very best.

On the other hand...

The grimy mirror in this locker room’s got three big cracks running across it, and when I look back at myself, my pieces don’t fit together right. The lines of my face are just a little off from each other. Most folks would say this mirror’s busted, but anypony that’s set hoof in here knows better. The reflection’s the truest in all of Equestria. You gotta be a little bit broken if you’re standing here.

First line: 9/10/9 This story hasn’t got anywhere near the attention it deserves.

This is the one that had absolutely everything right there in the first sentence. To my estimation, this would be near perfect on Chris’s scale [can confirm; that's a five out of five by me -Chris], even though I picked stories that I thought would accentuate the value of the few lines that followed. It highlights just how powerful the right opening line can be, against the backdrop of its competitor which scored slightly better in the long run.

It is my hope that the sheer spread of reactions to the various stories I picked will demonstrate that not only does the first line not have to carry the can on its own, but that sometimes the effect is actually greater if it doesn’t. Intended or not, HEITSIBPMFTSIATRAEMTCR comes with the unwritten implication that stories not scoring well are doing something wrong – or just poorly – which is not necessarily the case.

That bothers me. That bothers me a lot.

Here are the links to all stories and contributor replies:

1 | 2  DJThomp
1 | 2  RainbowBob
1 | 2  wYvern

At the very least, the participants and I all found it an enlightening experiment.

Now for my second premise: do I actually want the first line to set up a story?

The first concession here is obviously that I’m talking about what I want out of a first sentence, versus what Chris wants. This is fine as it’s the disagreement that is the subject of this post, but it’s worth repeating that all parties are being subjective. I’m only here to express the reasoning behind my particular opinion.

When I was poking about the internet as I pondered this point, I noted that there were quite a few sites that shared two traits: lists of ‘best opening lines’ were almost always two or three lines, and lists of what makes a ‘best line’ were generally lists of different ways to kick off a story. The absolute limit to how these disparate styles and ideas could be generalized was ‘do something memorable’.

Sometimes, having a clever first line that encapsulates the whole story is a winner. Sometimes, having a moody first line that sets a tone is just the ticket. Sometimes, telling a big fat lie is exactly what your story needs. Sometimes, a little careful obfuscation pays dividends. None of these are right, and none of these are wrong. All that matters is getting you to read; the story being told will take care of the rest.

Sure, one could argue that ‘setting up’ a story just refers to whatever it is the story needs, whether it is setting the PoV or bedding in the right tone or planting the seed for the cunning misdirection that comes later. But I don’t think you can judge an opening line on that since, as a reader, you’d have no idea where a story is supposed to go at all. Should an opening give a glimpse of what is to come?

I say no. Which is not to say that it shouldn’t, only that to say it is somehow incumbent upon the line to serve that purpose is an unreasonable constraint. Isn’t half the fun of both reading and writing to find new ways of doing things?

Also, a person could argue that generalising ‘setting up the rest of the story’ to the point where it is synonymous with ‘whatever the story needs to work’ renders the meaning so wide that it is almost useless. To me, that seems to come full-circle back to ‘does it work?’ Essentially it only requires that it set up something, irrespective of whether that is an up-front indicator for the rest of the story or merely the pathway to the next sentence.

Does a completely deadpan opening ‘set you up’ for a story that goes on to juxtapose the main character’s stoic severity with the rampant silliness of those around him? Does it matter if you know whether it is setting you up or not?

I have considered the possible length and breadth of Chris’s terminology, but every direction seems to boil down to being either too constrictive or dilute to the point of meaninglessness. The only conclusion I can draw is that ‘preparing a reader’ is but one of many possible functions that a first sentence can fulfill, and we, as authors, critics, or readers, would be far better served by using much more inclusive terminology.

As restrictive as it may be, it behooves us to remember that many people will look to our words and form opinions based on implications we may never have intended. In this matter, I believe there is merit for explicit consideration towards an open mind regarding what a first sentence does, rather than framing it in terms of what it should do. While failures should be addressed in a forthright manner, we should always strive to keep the door open to experimentation and innovation. Otherwise, we might miss out on the greatest idea that someone never writes down because they thought it was wrong.

So judge your first sentences, by all means, but do away with the antiquated notion that what it ‘should’ do can be quantified without consideration of the context in which it occurs.

The first line gets you to the second line. Make both lines good.


-Scott ‘Inquisitor’ Mence

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Thanks for putting so much thought into this, Scott!  And thanks as well to DJThomp, RainbowBob, and wYvern for the assists.

I think it goes without saying that the criteria I've been using to judge first sentences are even more arbitrary than those I judge stories as a whole by--and those criteria have been subject to modification, as I've gradually figured out what I'm (trying to) do (ing).  The reason I started looking at first sentences in the first place is because openings in general are so important to both getting people to read your story (especially in a field like fanfiction, where the sunk costs in beginning a fic--and thus, the outside motivation to continue reading--are often minimal) and to putting your reader in the "right" frame of mind for the rest of the story.  First sentences, I think everyone would agree, are by definition an important part of that opening--but I think everyone would also agree, they're not the only part.

I don't know how I'll change those posts going forward, but I'll keep doing them, and keep trying to figure out how to make them more useful and relevant.  Thanks again for the advice and surveying, Scott!

12 comments:

  1. I agree that keeping first sentences versatile is good. They're the first step into a whole new world! Why limit literally limitless literary potential? I think the problem with that, though, is like this post says. Sometimes the purpose of the first sentence of a story isn't to hook the reader in or prepare them for what's to come. Sometimes it's the setup for a punchline. Sometimes it's half a description. Sometimes it's an onomatopoeia.

    Personally I like the First Sentences in Fanfiction setup because it's interesting to see what it would be like to judge stories by their first sentence, and not because I think it's a legitimate system. Plus Chris always has a blurb about the rest of the story too, so it's not like it's totally blind judgement.

    It's like when I used to live near the library and I would go in every couple of days to check out new books. It was just for fun, and I didn't know what any of them were about, so the way I would decide what to get was by opening them to a random page and reading the first sentence that caught my attention. If it was boring I would put it back; if it was interesting, then we had a winner!

    Did my method make me miss out on some books I would have liked? Probably so. Did it infuriate one of my friends because I just so happened to randomly read a sentence that spoiled one of the largest plot twists of an entire series he was reading? Yes it did. Point being, it kept things interesting, and I think that judging things on different criteria now and then, even if it's unfounded, can be a good way to broaden your horizons. I learned a lot about my friend that day. I also read a lot of books I probably never would have otherwise, which helped me better develop my current taste in literature. Win win.

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  2. Is this revolution? Is the tyranny of Chris finally at an end?

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    1. *Runs up with torch and pitchfork*

      Am I too late?

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  3. Hahaha, I hate present tense narration *so much*.

    It probably comes from doing so much audiobook listening, where it just sounds so wrong to me. Even the occasional present tense typo you get in a more normally written stories sets my teeth on edge while listening. In fact, after a bit of self-reflection, I bet its the typos that annoy me the most. That ever so slightly makes me want to dig up a reading of a story fulling present tense to see if I can make it all the way through.

    Regarding this experiment, from my perspective it's both interesting to see the reactions but at the same time I don't think it would be a good reflection of my real reading habits as far as FimFiction specifically is concerned. If I'm interested in a story I'll shelve it for later reading with the first paragraph sight unseen, and at that point you'll probably have me for the whole first chapter unless something goes terribly wrong mid-way through. With that in mind, it's probably the description, whether it's a story by an author I'm already following, or a recommendation from someone like PP or TD that actually makes the most difference as to whether I'm going to be a reader for any given story.

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    1. Argh, typos. "a reading of a story that's fully present tense"

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    3. I bet Hard Reset has a few readings. That was present tense, if I'm remembering correctly.

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  4. Oh wow, you're right. And now that I go take a fresh look it doesn't feel odd at all, which is a big difference compared to even the brief snippet from Obselescence above.

    I wonder if the real culprit is present tense third person? Hard Reset is in first person, and I read it years ago and can't remember being bugged by it at all.

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    1. My story is in present tense, as well, and you seemed to be favorable to that one. It is in first person, though. Maybe the third person perspecitve is the issue.

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    2. What about stories where it's present tense first person, but the character refers to themselves in the third person?

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    3. The real culprit is definitely third person present. First person present can be effective and subtle, to the point that you apparently don't even notice it's there. Third person present is impossible to miss, and there's very little justification for its existence.

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    4. Maybe you've just read bad examples? I've written a couple of first-person present stories, but only one third-person present. Chris liked that one and reviewed in here.

      There are times a premise just works better in one tense or person than another. I find first-person can be more effective in keeping a character's identity hidden, since in third person the narrator would have to conspicuously avoid using a name, for example. Present tense works when there's more of a feeling of uncertainty, that the character doesn't know how things will turn out, whereas past tense give it more of a feel that things are already complete and the narrator's just telling you about them after the fact. Come to think of it, I think Chris has reviewed most if not all of my present-tense stories. So he clearly has a predilection for it. :B

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