Friday, January 19, 2018

First Sentences in (Fan)Fiction the 25th

As I sometimes do, I thought I'd switch things up with the first sentences section a bit: today, I'll be looking at some talented/prolific authors in the fandom (both aspects are important, for reasons that will quickly become clear) and compare the first sentence of their earliest published work with the first sentence of their most recently published one.  It's often easy to see noticeable improvement with fanfic authors from early to later works; now let's see if that holds up when one judges a fic by just its first few words!  And since the learning experience is what we're hoping to see in action here, I'll try to pick still-active authors who've been around a while.  Now, head below for some comparisons.

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. 

OLD FIC:  The End of Ponies, by shortskirtsandexplosions
The first sentence:  The first thing she remembered was how scared Rainbow Dash was.

A few thoughts:  I think opening with Dash being openly scared is a good way to set the stakes immediately; she's the pony least likely to (want to) show that she's frightened, so we get an idea that something big is going on right away.  The first phrase, though, seems strange to me; "The first thing she remembered"?  Maybe it should be "noticed" or "realized" instead, or maybe that "the first thing" is misleading and should be excised.  It weakens the opening a bit, but not enough to knock me below a solid three out of five: this is an opening "which inspires neither great excitement nor great dread."

NEW FIC:  A Capper Is Fine Tooby shortskirtsandexplosions

The first line:  Capper's eyes briefly shimmered like turquoise as he glided past the spotlight—as if on ice.

A few thoughts:  So, with SS&E's fics, we go from a epic-length dark adventure to a silly SoL/Comedy oneshot.  Not exactly apples to apples in terms of stories (a theme you'll notice as we continue), but we can still see how the first sentences set up their fics.  The End of Ponies' opening immediately gave us a sense of danger and high stakes; contrariwise, this first sentence is much more opaque.  I don't like having the last phrase set off by a dash--it feels like it could be part of the sentence proper with little change, or could be spun off on its own, and either way would make for a smoother reading experience.  The way the eyes are described as catching the spotlight is somewhat novel, but between the lack of communication here (besides the fact that it's a fic about Capper, what do you learn from this sentence?  In terms of story, mood, tone, characterization, intent... anything?) and that awkward end, I'm giving it a two.

OLD FIC:  A New Harmony, by Pascoite

The first line:  Another summer in Ponyville. Another dark summer. No matter. There had been many dark days before now, but it’s bearable when the end is in sight.

A few thoughts:  This is a fairly opaque opening, but it does prompt enough reader engagement to work as a starter hook (i.e. there's enough questions being prompted to keep the reader going for at least a few more paragraphs, by which time a more substantial hook will presumably have had time to develop).  The it's instead of they're in the last sentence threw me at first, and I wonder if most readers wouldn't trip over it as well; if I'm right in guessing they might, then that seems like something that could be easily smooted to facilitate the initial reading experience.  Still, on the strength of its draw (ending with "the end is in sight" basically demands that the reader keep going), I'll give it a weak three.

NEW FIC:  How Lily Longsocks Spent Hearth’s Warming Eve on the Moon, by Pascoite

The first line: 
Hearth’s Warming time, as ponies say,
Makes windigoes fly far away,
But children keep the friends they’ve found
And love them dearly all year ’round.

A few thoughts:  I'm a sucker for rhyming, and in two couplets Pasco sets the tone for his entire story and whips up something you could skip rope to.  It's a sweet little piece of verse on its own, but it also does a great job of preparing the reader for what's to come in terms of style and emotional tenor.  Add to that its quotability, and I'm going to let myself be tempted up to a full five: this is an opening that both encourages me to keep reading, and which is enjoyable even when separated from the context of its fic.

OLD FIC:  Maiden Flight by Cold in Gardez

The first line:  It was a lazy afternoon in Ponyville, at the height of summer, and most sensible ponies were taking refuge from the sweltering heat inside their homes or favorite shops. The lake south of town and the ice cream stand outside the Hayseed Cafe were doing brisk business, but otherwise the streets were conspicuously empty of traffic. Apart from the twittering of birds and the buzz of insects, the town was remarkably quiet, content to bide its time until the sun dipped toward the horizon and the cool breeze of evening could come to the rescue.

A few thoughts:  I probably could have just quoted the first sentence, but I wanted to give a sense of how long this single idea (it's to hot to do much) is hammered.  Now, in fact, there are three more paragraphs of this idea before we get to the inevitable "except for..." and I think you'll all agree that this is not an idea that necessitates four paragraphs to set up.  The writing is pleasant and the overall effect is very readable, but this story opens with a whole lot of nothing.  That's not exactly misleading for an extremely fluffy fic like this, but I can't bring myself to call it a good thing.  A weak two, buoyed up by the fact that, even if the content and pacing do nothing to make me want to keep reading, at least the laconic descriptions are both intrinsically pleasing and a good textual match for what they're describing.

NEW FIC:  The Shadow Alphabet, and other tales for Nightmare Night, by Cold in Gardez

The first line:  Fluttershy surveyed the mess on her front lawn with a frown.

It had been a bird at one point, that much was certain.

A few thoughts:  Technically, that's the first line of the last story in this collection; although they were all published together, that felt like the "first sentence" most in keeping with the spirit of this exercise.  Anyway, I think it's a great opening to a horror fic; giving us the idea of a mangled body without being too graphic, and contrasting the situation with Fluttershy's almost blase reaction give the reader a great hook, while also offering Gardez a chance to build her characterization.  A solid four.

OLD FIC:  Two Unicorns walk into a village, by Georg

The first line:  The path from the Everfree Forest to Ponyville was not exactly a heavily traveled road. The much safer bypass that only added an hour to the trip from Canterlot was a much more popular route, and never lacked for traffic. Only on the rarest of occasions would travelers who who were either too foolish or in too much of a hurry for their own good decide to take the dangerous shorter road through the mysterious woods.

A few thoughts:  Well, I like it a lot better than the jokey disclaimer that heads the fic proper--not that I would mark an author down for having a disclaimer, but the tone of this one is a poor match for the story about to be told.  I like it better than the uncapitalized title, for that matter.  The opening itself is a bit bland, though it does a fine job of setting up our opening locale, and has a nicely conversational tone.  So although it's not a promising looking opening, I'll still give the actual first line a weak three.

NEW FIC:  Merry Regiftmas, by Georg

The first line:  “Oh, a present!” Luna and Celestia struggled to see who would get to the large wrapped gift first, despite the two guards surrounding it with drawn spears and fierce scowls.

A few thoughts:  The presentation here does a good job of preparing the reader for the rapid-fire nature of the story itself, so that's a plus.  But beyond "gets one in the right frame of mind to read the fic" it's also a nice flavor of low-key funny in its own right, with the late reveal of the armed guards throwing the mundane situation presented into a new light (to come back to my first point, this is a varietal of humor that Georg will return to again many times in this fic).  It's true that there's not really enough description or context to visualize the setting--the characters exist seemingly in a vacuum--but that's a deliberate writing decision, so I can't really ding it for that.  A low-end four.

(I may do a second one of these soon, because there were several more authors I immediately thought of doing for this, but didn't get to.  You'd think looking at eight first sentences would take no time at all, but I just spent most of an evening on it...)


  1. Okay, this was cool, definitely do it again. :D

  2. Oh jeez, first stories. This is cruel and unusual punishment. I hope you didn't read any more than the first few lines. Not that it's the worst thing I've written, but it's down there, with dropped plot threads, and canon broke it, and...

    Anyway, I'm a little surprised you liked the opening poem as much as you did for the new one. It does set the tone, and it kind of indicates where the plot will go, but if it were truly taken in isolation, I'm not sure it does the latter so well. I mean, it does, but it's not clear it does, unless you go in armed with having read the synopsis. And that makes me wonder: do you take the synopsis into account when rating these (presumably any given reader would have done so when deciding to click on the chapter), or do you take it in a vacuum?

    1. I’ll agree. Two Unicorns was literally the first MLP story I wrote, back when the egg yolk was still all over my face and that embarrassing tooth had not broken off my beak. Getting really close to six years of writing now (hence the immense number of comma splices, inconsistent capitalization in titles, and a few million other things I should go back and fix someday.) Oh, and this was back in the days before we had a map, so the Everfree was misplaced into being between Ponyville and Canterlot. Sigh. The disclaimer was something I added when I was afraid people would take my story too seriously (which still happens at times).

      Still, it’s not bad, and I get the occasional fave on it now and then. It’s where I developed the idea of the Royal Equestrian Courier Service (RECS) who take care of the princesses and their strange delivery requests. Averaging about 1 read a day.

      Merry Regiftmas was a case of rapid-fire scene shifting and skeletal descriptions, intentionally written that way because the humor was in the situations and the characters. (Again, being a case of humor being in the shallow end of the pool) Still, I could have done a better job with the beginning, because that second guard there just vanishes, and with such a shallow setup, the rest of the plot points may not resonate as well. It is a good example of writing humor or stand-up comedy, because not all jokes will ‘catch’ with the reader, and if you linger at a dud joke instead of progressing to the next one, they’ll lose interest. Still averaging about 10-20 reads a day.

      (Which writer was it who said "Once you make your first sale, go back and burn everything you've written to that point")

    2. >do you take the synopsis into account when rating these (presumably any given reader would have done so when deciding to click on the chapter), or do you take it in a vacuum?

      To a certain degree. I'm looking at a variety of different things, and I don't make an effort to vigorously delineate how much I weight each element of what I think makes a good first sentence. For the poem, I looked at it this way:

      Does it stand on its own, i.e. sound good without further context? Yes.

      Does it make me want to keep reading? Yes.

      Having read further, is it also a strong passage in context? Yes.

      Does it make the subsequent passages stronger by its inclusion, or could it have been cut and the story started later without losing anything of worth? The former.

      Does it put me in the right mental space to read this story? Absolutely, yes.

      And on top of all that, I subjectively liked it. So, to answer your actual question: yes, I do think about synopsis/title/cover art/other things the reader might already know when looking at first sentences... or at least, it's one thing I look at.