Here’s Tension in your first sentence from my book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells.
There’s a reason for working to create tension with your very first sentence—it leads to the second sentence, and you draw your reader into your story sentence by sentence by sentence. It’s clear that each sentence on the first page is charged with the responsibility to KEEP READERS MOVING FORWARD.
When you send a sample to an agent, or when an editor turns to your first page, you are on trial. Not just your work, but your ability. The agent/editor wants to know, can this writer engage me? Can this writer use language to make me read his story?
The story is on trial as well. You get a few hundred words to make your initial case that the journey through the next 80,000 words is worth it, and will reward your reader with a helluva reading experience.
And it all starts with that first line.
But there are so many things in your mind when you craft that first sentence—setting the scene, or characterizing, or creating action, or whatever—it’s entirely possible to miss seeing a lack of tension.
Take me, for example. In one of my novels, I’d reworked that bloody first sentence scores of times, and it had evolved to this:
As I neared one of the bronze lions that guard the Chicago Art Institute, a lean man in a black overcoat aimed a small video camera at me.
While it did what I wanted it to in many ways, including setting the scene and starting with action, it nagged at me that something was missing.
I realized that the problem—and the solution—lay in the verb. While “aimed” is descriptive enough, and it gives you a clear picture of the man’s movement, it is otherwise lame. It describes the action, but doesn’t characterize it in a way that can create tension. By the way, I think Stephen King is a master at creating mood and tension in this micro approach to word choice.
In this case, I needed to add a flavor that suggested something was amiss with this action, that there might be jeopardy attached. I didn’t want to be as “on the nose” as something like “threatened.” That wouldn’t make a lot of sense, and would be ham-handed as well. I think the replacement verb below does the trick.
As I neared one of the bronze lions that guard the Chicago Art Institute, a lean man in a black overcoat targeted me with a small video camera.
For me, “targeted” adds an element of purpose to the man’s action. And what do we do with targets? We hit them or shoot at them. That, it seems to me, is implicit in my choice of verb; my protagonist, Annie, feels like a target, and that adds tension.
In addition, since we’re in Annie’s point of view, this adds to characterization because it’s her interpretation of the normally innocent action that lets the reader know that, for some reason, she sees it as a threat.
This is a tiny bit of writing for effect, true, but it contributes to the aggregate that delivers her experience.
After finding this soft spot in my own work, I decided to go through the many samples writers have sent to me and see how their first sentences fared in terms of creating some sense of tension. For example:
In the moment after midnight, the world held its breath.
For me, lots of tension there. Why did the world hold its breath? Why at midnight? What’s happening? Here’s another.
There’s something there.
“They’re belly beads.”
Hmm. Kinda interesting, but no hint of tension. In looking at the rest of the sample, there was no tension in the opening paragraphs. This writer will have to dig deeper.
Next, from a published novel, Nectar from a Stone, by Jane Guill.
Maelgwyn’s “husbandly attention,” as he called it, went on and on.
That opening line is packed with information and, for me, tension. In those eleven words I get the idea that sex is happening; that the recipient of Maelgwyn’s attention doesn’t think of it the same way that he does; and that she doesn’t like it. This opening both establishes a relationship and smacks of the tension in it.
Here’s another from a published work, E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web.
“Where’s Papa going with that ax?”
I defy anyone to not rush to the next sentence. Now back to some of the samples sent to me by unpublished writers.
Allison could sense something was wrong all the way to the roots of her fur.
There’s tension alluded to here, but it doesn’t grab me. I think it’s the fact that I’m being told about the tension (“something was wrong”) rather than being shown. I took another part of the opening paragraph and added it in this way:
Allison’s father stepped into the doorway, and she tensed all the way to the roots of her fur.
That’s a start at raising story questions and writing for effect. What about this one?
Inspector Steve Masters of the National Security Branch watched her stride down the airport concourse.
Only the man’s title and the “Security Branch” hint at tension, and vaguely. The lack lies in the action—just watching someone isn’t tension-provoking. How about just a couple of tweaks. . .
Inspector Steve Masters of the National Security Branch tracked his target through the airport concourse.
Grace stirred in bed, kept her eyes closed.
Nope. But a few sentences later, the writer had this:
A floorboard creaked beneath the worn carpet.
Now, if that had been the first sentence, and then we had Grace stirring but keeping her eyes closed, I would wonder what Grace isn’t seeing that makes the floor creak—there would be tension afoot. Next:
Boccaha was a small fat balding man with bad teeth.
That simple description caused no tightening in my mind. For one thing, he’s not doing anything, as far as we can see. As it happened in this sample, it took a couple of hundred words of exposition before anything actually happened.
Here’s an opening (very long) sentence that focuses on scene.
A crisp, bitter winter wind knifed between the buildings of downtown Seattle, slashing like transparent rapids through the alleys and streets, seeping into the cracks around doors and windows, and stealing under people’s coats and hats as nature sought to balance hot and cold.
While I applaud the writer’s effort to set the scene, and he has given thought to using active verbs, all we’re really seeing is a windy day. No tension here. As it happened, his second paragraph started this way:
Darren McAllister’s stiffening body lay face-up in a green, rusted metal Dumpster, half-hidden by discarded pizza boxes and a bulging black plastic trash bag.
Okay, now you’ve got me. Add the wind in later, if you must, but give me tension to begin with. Interestingly, writers often have a real grabber of an opening sentence that comes later in the narrative.
Here’s a writer who didn’t wait around.
She couldn’t run any more, but she didn’t dare stop.
Applause, applause. I want more. Guaranteed that I’ll move on to the next sentence, and the writer increases her chances of hooking me. How about this one?
The Reverend David Wilcox was walking slowly across the wet grass towards the rectory, where his friend Dr Alex Greer was waiting for him.
No sale. This was from a murder mystery. Not even enhancing the verbs (“walking slowly” needs help) would add edge to this simple movement. But about 1,200 words later in the story was this sentence:
He lowered the pillow over Emily’s face and pressed down firmly.
Now we’re talking.
Go to the first line on your first page. If there’s no tension, look for a way to add it—there’s an agent or editor waiting to drop the blade like an executioner if he’s not lured further into the story.
For what it’s worth
© 2010 Ray Rhamey