Monday, October 16, 2017

First Sentences in (Fan)Fiction the 23rd

It's MEA week!  That magical time of year when teachers and school workers alike across the state get a four-day weekend to go up to the cities and visit their sister attend the massive teacher's convention which is totally what I'm going to do, uh-huh, absolutely.  Don't get me wrong, I do go sometimes, but... eh, not this year.  I'm going to have some fun instead.

You know what else would be fun?  Looking at some first sentences, and seeing what we can learn from them!  Head down below the break for my thoughts on how some of those Fandom Classics I keep reviewing handle their intros.

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 the fic in question.   
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 a page or two in and gotten a better sense for the line's context, graded as BETTER, WORSE, or THE SAME when taken as part of a larger whole.

The Incredibly Dense Mind of Rainbow Dash, by Chengar Qordath (overall story rating: one star)

The first line:  Hearts and Hooves Day is a pain in the flank.

Initial thoughts:  Although you can't really tell from the way I quoted it, part of the reason this works is that it's a paragraph unto itself; this would have been a weaker opening as part of a larger paragraph, but setting it off by itself makes it feel more definite, more like a character-defining statement, than a more muted presentation might have.  It's an opening of the "strong but shallow hook" type; that is to say, it pretty much demands you read the next paragraph or two, but doesn't offer a longer-term angle nor draw you in with beautiful prose or a striking image.  But a strong but shallow hook is a perfectly fine opening, as long as those next couple of paragraphs deliver something of a less transient draw.  So, a three from me: it's a fine opening, which neither particularly worries nor enthralls me.

After reading:  It's about THE SAME: it does indeed deliver something more in its next few lines, though that "something" is mostly a peek at the author's characterization of Dash.  In other words, this opening does what it sets out to do--not much more, and nothing less.

A Teacher With No Class, by Kavonde (overall story rating: three stars)

The first line:  Cheerilee's classroom buzzed with excitement. A week ago, she'd informed her little ponies that they'd be getting a special guest—royalty, even!—in their classroom to teach them all about how Equestria's government worked.

Initial thoughts:  In context of the story's description, it's obvious which noble they're going to get (stuck with).  So building up to a disappointment seems like a good place to start.  The opening sets our scene and dramatis persona, and gives us an initial (and implied subsequent) mood, so it's getting a fair bit accomplished... but it's also pretty bland, in terms of the actual presentation and writing.  Another three.

After reading:  It's THE SAME.  The buildup to disappointment goes on a little long for my tastes, but since it's clear that it is buildup to disappointment, it works fine.  And the grand reveal lands with just the wet, dead-fish-like thud you'd hope it would.

Gazing to the Ocean of the Sky, by David Silver (overall story rating: one star)

The first line:  The cool rush of the waters flowed in a dull roar around her ears as she propelled herself through the sea with powerful undulations of her tail.

Initial thoughts:  I might be overthinking this... but I don't like it.  It's verbiage without weight; the first sentence tells us "the seapony was swimming," but I don't see that all the extra words do a good job of helping me visualize what's going on.  Don't get me wrong, I love a good descriptive passage!  But "cool rush," "dull roar," and "powerful undulations" are all the key words in sub-phrases that tell us... what, exactly?  I don't think any of those are really helping me with my pre-existing image of a seapony swimming quickly, and the first half of the sentence in particular scans poorly as a result of the wording.  Again, I might be overthinking this, but I'm going a weak two.

After reading:  Seeing as it accurately pressages the story's writing style, one could argue that it's actually BETTER than I gave it credit for, insofar as it does prep the reader for what's to come.  But that's more of a meta-plus than a technical or stylistic one, so YMMV.

The Magician's Apprentice, by Chris (overall story rating: two easy chairs)

The first line:    "Are you sure I'm ready for this, master?" 12 year old Riley asked Judiah, who was training him as a magician."

Initial thoughts:  This is from the fantasy short I wrote when I was ten--it's all there in the link, if you don't remember it.  And obviously, it is the fantasticist.  Ten-year-old me deftly wedded exposition with narrative, telling us Riley's age, would-be profession, and relationship with the other character in the scene, all by the elegant expedient of literally telling us those things.  And that extra quotation mark at the end of the sentence blurs the line between dialogue and narration, inviting the reader to soak in the undifferentiated soup of words young-me is throwing at ya.  A perfect five, delivered without a hint of irony.

After reading:  It CAN'T GET ANY BETTER, because it's already the fantasticist.  God, it's like you people don't even read these things.

Statistics, by xTSGx (overall story rating: four stars)

The first line:  The statistics end now.

Initial thoughts:  For a story that's literally nothing but statistics, that does seem like an odd way to start.  But then, that would seem to be the point: to catch the reader's eye before diving into a list proper, so that a glimpse at the lines of numbers doesn't instantly dull the reader's attention before they even have a chance to be read.  I suppose this accomplishes that... but I still don't know that I can go higher than three for it.

After reading:  It's THE SAME thing it looked like going in.  I was a little disappointed that it wasn't referenced again toward the end, but not enough to say that it should have been.

The Eagle Has Landed, by Cyanblackstone (overall story rating: one star)

The first line:  “One small step for man... one giant leap for mankind.”

Initial thoughts:  Let me just repeat what I said in my review proper:
Also, I think it's a mistake to start a fic--really, any fic--with Armstrong's iconic “That's one small step for [a] man... one giant leap for mankind.” Whether you put the "a" in there or not, a significant fraction of readers will think you've misquoted him, which isn't really an ideal reaction to a first sentence.
That said, it is an iconic line, so it's not like there's no reason to use it.  It instantly tells us where, when, who, and even creates a certain mindset.  It's a useful line; I'm just not convinced that it's a good one, in these circumstances.  Call it two.

After reading:  It might be a little WORSE, in that it doesn't really make any use of the mindset/tone which that line evokes.  


  1. About Armstrong's quotation: GhostOfHeraclitus's story Hoofprints incorporates that missed "a" as a plot point.

  2. Read "The Magicians Apprentice." Was adorable. Sends me back. Now want to do the same thing with my old stories. Just wanted to say that so I don't seem like I rip you off. Also, you weren't overthinking it with that one fanfic. I thought the same thing. Okay. Time to sink back into the shadows.

  3. To be frank, it's a scandal that The Magician's Apprentice didn't win the Pulitzer Prize. It's that sublime. Then again, they messed up on The Old Man and the Sea and Gravity's Rainbow, so who are they to judge?

    Perhaps the world just isn't ready for hybridized surreal comedy and postmodern fantasy. But one day... one day soon...

    1. Damn it. I hate how I now feel obligated to defend "The Old Man and the Sea"'s honor. It's so besides the point and ignoring the flippancy of your comment, but whatever. I take a stand here today. I feel like "The Old Man and the Sea," while it might not be each and everyone's cup of tea, is a wonderful and sad story that's written by a person who really knew his craft. To quote from a keyword analysis of the story I wrote for school:

      "First you feel calm and tranquil, out on the sea chasing this magnificent fish, then when the sharks come, all of it is torn to shreds, both figuratively and literally, and you do not know how react other than become angry. It may be because it all felt like a trick. The author built all that peacefulness and tranquility up, so he could tear it down. I think this is the real reason why I feel infuriated toward the end of the novel.

      "There is no doubt this is an effective novel however, as it managed to affect me in these ways. You feel tranquil first and infuriated later, and extremely immersed to boot, all the more so toward the end of the novel. Hemingway knew his craft, and I think this is the lesson I will take with me."

      The dramatic force of Santiago's tragedy hit me like, shall we say, a shovel. If Hemingway didn't deserve that Pulitzer, someone of his caliber certainly did.

    2. *"The Old man and the Sea's"

      to show I know how to use quotation marks ;I

    3. Sorry, I should have been clearer. When I said they "messed up" on it, I meant specifically that it took them twelve years to actually award Hemingway the prize. In hindsight, I see it was a mistake to fail to mention that twelve years earlier, For Whom the Bell Tolls was rejected on prudish grounds. I like to imagine that The Old Man and the Sea nomination was a subtle "oops we messed up sorry" nomination. Probably just me, though.

      I'd have thought juxtaposing it with Gravity's Rainbow, which didn't win the prize at all, might have been a clue, but I guess I was mistaken.

      Although as it happens, it's not my cup of tea either, but details, details...

    4. "Gravity's Rainbow" didn't win the prize at all? What the fuck? I thought it did! OH, whatever. Fuck those people then.

  4. "... all by the elegant expedient of literally telling us those things."

    Achievement Unlocked: Spit-take. Good thing my laptop is waterproof.