Tips on Creating That First Line

by Susan May Warren, @SusanMayWarren

How you hook your reader on the first page?

I love this quote by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who won the 1992 Nobel Prize for Literature for 100 years of Solitude.

“One of the most difficult things is the first paragraph…in the first paragraph, you solve most of the problems with your book. The theme is defined, the style, the tone. At least in my case, the paragraph is a kind of sample of what the rest of the book is going to be.”

By the way, that book sold over 10 million copies.

The hook paragraph, your first paragraph just might be the most important paragraph you write in your entire story. Yesterday, I talked about four ways to begin your story. Today, I’m going to share with you my technique on how I figure out the first sentence.

I use an acronym, SHARP which stands for:

  • Stakes
  • Hero/Heroine identification
  • Anchoring
  • on the Run
  • Problem (Story Question)

Before I write anything, I start with understanding the big picture of my story and my scene.

Step One: Figure out what is at Stake.

Stakes are what is going to drive your reader through the story, whether they are personal or public, and hinting at them in the beginning will give your reader “something to fight for.”

Public Stakes: Public stakes have much to do with public values, what matters to people. Ask yourself…what matters to me? If it matters to you, then it matters to others. What’s the worst thing you could think of happening to you? Then others fear that also. And that’s where you find your public stakes.

Personal Stakes:  Personal stakes can be found in the root of our values. The things that drive us, or the things we long for. How do you find those personal values of your character?

ASK:

  • What matters most to him in life?
  • What would he avoid at all costs, and why?
  • What defining incident in his past has molded him to the person he is today?
  • What are his goals, and why?
  • Find two different values, and then ask yourself: in what situation will these values be pitted against each other? These are the personal stakes.

Finally, ask yourself: What could go wrong in this scene? This is the answer of what is at stake.

Step Two: Create Hero/Heroine Identification, or Sympathy for the character from the reader.

You’re trying to create a connection with the reader by helping them identify with the character. How do you find that sympathetic element? Ask yourself: What do I have in common with my character? What need, or dream, or situation, or fear, or past experience do we share? And what about that can I extrapolate that fits into my story?

Step Three is called Anchoring, or using the 5 W’s to create a sense of place.

By the end of the first paragraph, and for sure the first scene, you should have anchored your character into the scene by using the five W’s. Who, What, Where, When and Why? The 5 w’s can evoke emotions, and give us a feeling of happiness, or tension, even doom in the scene. Ask: What is the one emotion you’d like to establish in this first sentence, paragraph, scene? Using the five 5’s, what words can you find for each W that conveys this sense of emotion? You’ll use these in the crafting of your first paragraph.

Step Four: Start your scene on the Run.

Dwight Swain says, in Techniques of the Selling Writer, “a good story being in the middle, retrieves the past and continues to the end.” Your first sentence hook should be something that begins in the middle of the action. It is a blip in time in the middle of that incident that zeros in on the character and gives us a glimpse at his life and why this situation is important.

Step Five: Set up the Problem or Story Question.

The story question is the one thematic question that drives the book. This question permeates all the decisions of the hero and/or heroine throughout the story, and needs to be hinted at in the sentence, in the first paragraph, and in the first scene. How do you find a theme? Ask: What is the lesson my character will walk away with? The question that accompanies that answer is the theme.

Take these five elements, and sift them together, looking at each one. Can you highlight one of  these elements to serve as the first line?  Of, could one of the four openings from yesterday’s blog offer the biggest curiosity? Try this – if you are writing in Deep POV, ask: what is my character thinking right now? Could this thought serve as the first line?

Happy writing!

Susie May


A Matter of Trust (Montana Rescue Book #3)

Champion backcountry snowboarder Gage Watson has left the limelight behind after the death of one of his fans. After being sued for negligence and stripped of his sponsorships, he’s remade his life as a ski patrol in Montana’s rugged mountains, as well as serving on the PEAK Rescue team. But he can’t seem to find his footing–or forget the woman he loved, who betrayed him.Senator and former attorney Ella Blair spends much of her time in the limelight as the second-youngest senator in the country. But she has a secret–one that cost Gage his career. More than anything, she wants to atone for her betrayal of him in the courtroom and find a way to help him put his career back on track.

When Ella’s brother goes missing on one of Glacier National Park’s most dangerous peaks, Gage and his team are called in for the rescue. But Gage isn’t so sure he wants to help the woman who destroyed his life. More, when she insists on joining the search, he’ll have to keep her safe while finding her reckless brother, a recipe for disaster when a snowstorm hits the mountain.

But old sparks relight as they search for the missing snowboarder–and suddenly, they are faced with emotions neither can deny. But when Ella’s secret is revealed, can they learn to trust each other–even when disaster happens again?

Susan May Warren is owner of Novel Rocket and the founder of Novel.Academy. A Christy and RITA award-winning author of over fifty novels with Tyndale, Barbour, Steeple Hill, Summerside Press and Revell publishers, she’s an eight-timeChristy award finalist, a three-time RITA Finalist, and a multi-winner of the Inspirational Readers Choice award and the ACFW Carol. A popular writing teacher at conferences around the nation, she’s also the author of the popular writing method, The Story Equation. A full listing of her titles, reviews and awards can be found at: www.susanmaywarren.com. Contact her at: susan@mybooktherapy.com.