Monday, January 16, 2017

First Sentences In (Fan)Fiction the 18th

You know what's a great feeling?  When you log onto FiMFic, see a bunch of notifications, and when you go through them, discover that someone spent the better part of four hours favoriting your stuff.  I mean, it's just nice to get new favorites period, but the spacing--every favorite separated by 10-30 minutes--tells you that this person read a story of yours, liked it so much that they dove straight into another, then another, and so on, for an entire afternoon.  It's putting a smile on my lips all over again just typing this.

But you can't get a person to binge-read your oeuvre if you can't get them to read your second paragraph.  In that spirit, let's do another installment of our looks at first sentences!  My thoughts, below.

As a reminder, the first sentences here are being judged as first sentences, using my patented HEITSIBPMFTSIATRAEMTCR ("how effective is this sentence in both preparing me for the story I'm about to read, and encouraging me to continue reading") scale.  On that scale, a five equates roughly to "immediately evokes a specific tone, prepares the reader for the rest of the story, and encourages me to continue reading," a one is "makes me less likely to continue reading," and a three is "a perfectly adequate first sentence, which neither inspires great excitement or great dread."  For each story, I'll give the title with a link to my review of it, and the star rating I initially gave that story.   
Note that, as part of my ongoing tweaking/developing of these posts, I'll be taking a fairly liberal definition of "first sentence," so some "sentences" may be two (or more!) sentences long; "first complete idea" might be more technically accurate, but it's not as catchy.  Additionally, the review of each sentence will be split into two parts.  The first part will be my thoughts after reading ONLY the first sentence, and the second, my thoughts on it after having read the story, graded as BETTER, WORSE, or THE SAME when taken in its larger context.

The Veil of Thoughtsby Starwin (story: 1 star)

The first line:  The ceiling was moving. Why was the ceiling moving? Ceilings didn’t move. Yet, there it was, racing by overhead.

Initial thoughts:  This is a particular type of "throw you right into the character's thoughts" introduction that you see a lot in fiction: the "waking up from some form of disorientation" type.  There's a reason it's so common: it creates an immediate hook, while giving the author a convenient reason to describe the surroundings when the character invariably looks around and tries to figure out/remember where they are.  So as openings go, this is a good one, but it's also a very, very, normal one.  With that in mind, I'm going to give it a three: it does what I expect of an opening, without making me much more fearful nor optimistic than I was before I began.

After reading:  This goes the exact place you expect it to, because that's what it's designed to do.  It's THE SAME.

And the Temptress Came Unto Her, by device heretic (story: 3 stars)

The first line:  Matthew 4:1

And so, the Lord was lead into the wilderness, to be confronted by the Tempter.

Initial thoughts:  This is as good a place as any to mention that "first sentence" can be a very arbitrary concept, and not just in terms of the "where do I cut off this thought and call it 'the first line.'"  Sometimes, I need to figure out whether the prologue or first chapter of a fic is best evaluated, for example; in other cases, such as here, there's an opening quote.  Is it "the first sentence," or is it best treated as a preamble to the fic proper?

In this case, I decided that the quote was "the first line," since it's clearly a framing device, rather than a piece of decorative fluff.  But how do you evaluate a quote as a first line, then?  Well, by how well it engages the reader, and here, I'd say it does a good job.  Biblical allusions can be inherently offputting to some readers, doubly so in the context of an MLP fanfic, where they also run the risk of seeming disrespectful.  But at the same time, it's an intrinsically evocative line, and immediately puts the reader in the desired mental space--that is, it provides a widely-recognizable context for the temptation which is presumably coming.  So... on balance, a high 3, I guess?

After reading:  It's much BETTER when paired with its bookend companion, the two of which nicely frame the story between them.

Light the Sky on Fire, by EquesTRON (story: 2 stars)

The first line:  The grass is cool and damp under my hooves as I trot towards Saddle Lake.  The early-morning air is clear and crisp, with only a small scattering of thin, high clouds in the sky to reflect Celestia’s sunrise. Cirrus uncinus clouds, also known as “mares’ tails” because of their thin, curved shape and feathery edges that look like the loose horsehair of a pony’s tail blowing in the wind.

Initial thoughts:  The story tries to do two things off the bat: set the scene, and place us in its protagonist's head.  The first it does fine, but the second is a bit lacking--there's no obvious rhyme or reason to the details Scoot is noting (for example, her observations could have revolved around details relevant to going for a flight), and both thinking in latin and then mentally translating the phrase doesn't really fit the presentation.  Still a two, since it's otherwise well-written and does the first part well, though.

After reading:  It's THE SAME, this sample being representative of the writing in the rest of the fic--at least, as far as the bits I mentioned go.

Scion of Chaos, by SilentBelle (story: 1 star)

The first line:  Why did everything she attempt have to end up wrong? Whether it was preparing breakfast, making sets and props, or trying to help her sister with any household chore, she, more often than not, found herself either surrounded by debris or choking in smoke, and always about to face the wrath of her sister.

Initial thoughts:  The content here is fine, but the writing has me a little concerned.  That second sentence, while not wrong per se, is a big ol' pile of commas for no good reason, and could easily be split into two sentences.  If nothing else, the three commas in close proximity at ", she, more often than not," could be reworked, so that they don't create such a bumpy reading experience.  2.

After reading:  I feel like it's slightly WORSE, because comma misuse and odd phrasings are the rule of the day throughout the fic, but that might just be me applying the flaws I see in the rest of the story to an imperfect but not awful first line.  Either way, it's at least still in the 2 range after reading.

Sun Princess, by Skywriter (story: 3 stars)

The first line:  She had a name for herself. Her name was "Faithful Student."

Initial thoughts:  I like it a lot.  In the context of the story image/description, it's clear that "she" is Winona, and the opening immediately draws the parallel between a dog's unconditional love for its master and Twilight's adoration of her mentor.  It also, more subtly, lays the groundwork for a comparison of Celestia's and Twilight's divergent lifespans (definitely so, pre-alicornication), and does it while framing Winona's self-image.  A definitive 5.

After reading:  It's WORSE, because some of those key threads (specifically, the AJ/Celestia comparison) are introduced and then later reinforced, but never really used.  It's still a good opening, but it's an underutilized on in retrospect.

Applejack's Bar, by Alaborn (story: 2 stars)

The first line:  Applejack wiped her brow and gazed over Sweet Apple Acres. The apples were ripening beautifully, and in a few days, she and Big Macintosh would be busy applebucking again. In the meantime, however, they had their new barn to finish.

Initial thoughts:  This opening is pretty generic: it sets the scene, introduces the character, and generally gets the exposition out of the way in an unobtrusive manner without accomplishing much else.  A low 3; it's definitely not exciting, nor particularly engaging, but it does what it sets out to do.

After reading:  It's a tiny bit WORSE, because there's no real payoff to the setup--it turns out that it doesn't really matter where AJ is for purposes of the first scene, so it maybe wasn't the best thing to focus the first line on.  Still, letting your reader know where your story takes place is hardly a bad thing, so I can't fault it much for that.


  1. I'll have you know, just because of your features like this, I've taken a lot more caution with my first lines. (It makes me think, "Hey, somebody's reading this!")

    With that in mind, the first line out of "Equestria - 1940" is:

    Seeing the unicorn in the airplane confused Jon at first.

    1. Pretty much the same, yeah. I always try to make the first sentence of my fics as poignant as possible -- and I'm fairly sure it's partially due to this blog. You sorta get jittery if the first sentence is not one of the best ones in the fic.

      Also helps that my style is so up my own butt that everything can sound deep or ominous or whatever, but that's what you got, yo. Hilariously enough, whenever Chris reviews a story of mine, it's always the one that doesn't have a particularly good starting line.

      Luck's a mean mistress, I guess.

    2. When Chris first came on to help me edit Fire Burning, I asked him to do one of these for me to make sure the fic passed his tests.

  2. Re: "And the Temptress Came Unto Her"

    Is it a bad sign when that first line contains a typo? I mean, I'm sure lots of them do, but when the typo is in a quote the author presumably looked up online and could have cut-and-pasted it in correctly? It's one thing when you're left to your own devices (heretic ones, at that), but quite another when you can't be bothered to copy what's sitting right in front of your face.

    1. I'm inclined to say yes: not as bad of a sign as one in the description, but I'd personally expect the first line/paragraph/page to have better proofreading than the rest of a short story. Though in this case I was wondering whether DH may have got unlucky, c/p-ing from a poor copy.

    2. The word "lead" (present tense) should be "led" (past tense).

    3. I've actually copy/pasted quotes or poetry snippets that later turn out to have typos or misspellings in the source, so...

      Besides, sometimes the most amazingly stupid mistakes can be overlooked despite repeated editing passes and multiple editors. I've goofed three chapter titles and a story title that way so far.