This is topic ideal first 13? in forum Open Discussions About Writing at Hatrack River Writers Workshop.

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Posted by Tess (Member # 2199) on :
One question. What, in your opinion, are the elements that make the perfect first 13 lines?

I think the requirements for the ideal first 13 depends on the type of story you intend to write, and a lot of the advice we give each other on this web site can be misleading, especially from a beginner’s perspective.

I’m going to borrow from a recent post Christine made to explain this.

Millieu: When telling a story that is more about a millieu (place, setting, time travel can be a millieu as well) you begin when the main character goes to the new place and end when he returns. Example: Gulliver's Travels.
Idea: When telling a story that's main point is the eventual revelation of an idea (as in a mystery story) you begin with the question and end with the answer.
Character: When a character change is the central element, you begin with the character realizing they need a change (Note: this is NOT necessarily when their problems begin) and end when they change or accept what is.
Event: When an event is the central focus of a story (epic fantasy, more often than not) you start when something goes wrong with the world and end when its fixed (or the world ends)

Creating an theoretical post: if I decide I’m telling a character story, I may feel it’s appropriate to get inside the main character’s head right away and write a first 13 centered around her thoughts on an event, idea, an object, action, or the setting. Let’s say I chose the setting, for argument’s sake, and posted it. The first response I may get is that I need some action, because descriptions are boring and I want to hook my reader faster. Another may say I need some dialogue, because he or she may prefer to hear a person speak sooner rather than later. Yet another might say I’m doing too much telling, not showing. All these people may be correct, but if I do what I want, and provide an effective description of the setting that has relevance to the book’s theme or the character’s personality, I’m correct also.

It can get hard, dealing with advice that’s only based on the first 13.

Another thing Christine posted. Sorry Christine, you’re the one that started me thinking. This is from a post in the writing class thread, advice found in Nancy Kress’ book on beginnings, middles, and ends.

Pull out a story of yours that has at least the first few scenes completed. Write five different opening scenes for the story, each no more than three to six paragraphs, focusin on:
1. The description of some object of importance to the scene.
2. Your point-of-view character engaged in some specific, unexpected action.
3. An outrageous opinion held by the point-of-view character, expressed inside her head or in her own words -- something she would never tell a living soul (everyone has these).
4. Six lines of dialogue between two character (three lines each) who are arguing about something that will be important to the plot.
5. A description of the room where the first scene occurs. Focus on details that will have thematic significance and/or that tell us something about the owner's personality.

I see all sorts of possibilities when I combine Kress’ advice with Card’s MICE formula. We all have our favorite approaches, and would probably select a favorite MICE recipe and beginning combo accordingly. My tendency is to forget that my favorite combo is simply my preference. Other valid combos exist as well. I think this demonstrates the basic premise that too many cooks spoil the soup. I sometimes have trouble figuring out whether I should stick to my guns or allow more cooks.

I know this is a large topic, and we don’t want to write essays here. Just thought I’d throw it out there to see what I’d get back.

So, back to the original question. What, in your opinion, would you consider the necessary elements of the ideal first 13? I expect some essentials exist that apply to all story types, and to all approaches at writing the beginning.

[This message has been edited by Tess (edited February 17, 2005).]

Posted by wbriggs (Member # 2267) on :
Coming at it another way, what I want to do in the first 13 is provide
* a hook
* assurance to the reader I'll do a good job, which largely involves being clear, showing sensory detail, and having a clear POV.

The MICE thing I have used to determine where the story starts.

[This message has been edited by wbriggs (edited February 17, 2005).]

Posted by Christine (Member # 1646) on :
There are at least as many right ways to start a story as wrong ways; and even if you choose one of the "right" ways, someone still won't like it. Suggestions: go through fragments and feedback. Since this thread has made a spectacle of me already (it's ok) go ahead and look through my recent story under "does this grab you?" :

Don't worry about the first thirteen lines for themselves, but check out the responses. At first, I was feeling pretty good about it. Suggestions about where sentences should go and what paragraph to begin with aside, it basically seemed to work. There was something there, at least. And then later on I find two people who just hated it. That's their choice, but the point is that I couldn't see this as a failed opening even after two people spoke out against it.


Now, that said, you probably want to please *someone* and preferably quite a few people. So when I provide suggestions for good hooks (and these are a sample, I expect to see many more), I would not expect any of these to hook everyone present.


1. SYMPATHY: Something that creates emotional sympathy like a character dealing death, divorce, abuse, etc. can get a lot of readers hooked. If you start with a sentence like: "Nothing was the same after my daughter died." you've got me for at least a couple of paragraphs while you explain or develop. There are other things we can sympathize with as ell, of course. Death is just always poignant and will get a lot of people. But a divorce can work too, for example. Some people won't sympathize because of preconceived notions about divorce and the rest will be looking for an additional reason to sympathize to keep them going, but it can work for starters.

2. CONCERN: If we are afraid that a character will die or otherwise come to harm, you may be able to hook us. "When Mike looked into his assailant's eyes, he saw death staring back at him." This has to be followed up with something that justifies it, but you've got me hooked. Mike might die. I don't even have to know who Mike is. Since it's his POV he's sentient and afraid of death (or he would have mentioned it) and I can relate to that.

3. WEIRDNESS: "The ten-headed Blarg of Proxima 9 hated when those human explorers walked into its mouths and got stuck in its throat." Ok...maybe someone else can come up with something better for weirdness, but theoretically you want the reader to say, "What?" but in a good way...this is different from "Huh?"

4. CONFLICT: This is a big one. If you start us right into conflict, whether verbal or physical, you've got a lot of people hooked. It doesn't even have to be huge vioence, it can be everyday fights.

Anyway...I'm going to write my novel now.

Posted by HSO (Member # 2056) on :
I feel the hook is important as well.

In my current novella, I flat out state two things: That my character is a ghost; and second that he's ultimately looking for the man who killed him so that my character can haunt him and torment him. If that isn't enough to draw a reader in part way before I bore them silly, then I've really got reconsider this writing thing.... or read more stories so I can learn.

Which is my recommendation... read everything you can for as many hours per day as possible. Study the openings and find out what makes them work for you, the reader. This is where the secret to good openings will be found, in my most humblest opinion.


Posted by dpatridge (Member # 2208) on :
you're missing one Christine, although i suppose it'd be able to fall under a combination of some of the others.

my favorite way for a story to hook me is to start it with the character explaining the story he is about to tell.

if you can squeeze foreshadow into your first thirteen i will love you to death!

if your very first sentence is foreshadow... well, i'll proceed to grovel before your feet.

your own story in F&F that you linked to is a perfect example of using foreshadow to hook, at least i darn well expect that to be a foreshadowing!

Posted by Tess (Member # 2199) on :
That’s funny, dpatridge. Foreshadowing doesn’t work for me off the bat, because I feel like the narrator is getting tricky, dangling information out there that has no meaning yet. Also, if a character explains his story, isn’t that telling, and not showing?

Now, I’m a fan of telling, when used within reason. I feel like I have to curb that, and I probably should to a large extent, but that has more to do with my experience level than anything else.

Posted by Christine (Member # 1646) on :
dpatridge, I've been thinking about your comment for a while now. I looked back at my opening and tried to make some sense of what technique I was using. (I usually do it unconsciously). I'm not sure it's entirely accurate to call it foreshadowing.

The thing about foreshadowing is that it has to be subtle; and so starting a story with it is almost by definition not subtle.

What I started with, I think, is an outrageous opinion held by the main character. "No one suspects the blind guy." While it does get you to ask, "Of what? What did this guy do?" it is more a tease than a foreshadow...the difference being a pretty fine line, I admit. Then the narrator gets cocky. The other thing this opening does is show you right away that the protagonist is blind, which almost always generates sympathy.

So no, I don't think foreshadowing works as a hook. A tease can work, but I submit that it only really works well in first person point of view because that method creates a sense of "this story has happened in its entirety and I know the ending." So of course, he knows what's happened and is simply not telling you for the purpose of telling a good story. A tease doesn't work well in third person POV...while it is essentially the same thing, witholding information, the fact that you picked a third person narrator to tell your story means that he should tell it straight. (There are exceptions...Stephen Brust writes a trilogy that is told in third person POV but the narrator is a historian from some time in the future of the story and so is, in a sense, a character.)

Posted by Jeraliey (Member # 2147) on :
Whenever I see something that starts with "I'm going to tell you about..." or "this story shows..." or whatever, I always think, "Ok, stop telling me what you're about to tell me and tell me already!!!"

I think the whole "tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them" construction only works in essays.

Posted by Christine (Member # 1646) on :
or's very good in speeches.
Posted by dpatridge (Member # 2208) on :
i didn't really say what i meant.

Christine's word choice was definitely better, it is more of a "tease." i guess i confuse them sometimes.

as for telling me what the story is i didn't mean it so literally, what i meant was to hint at it, basically another form of the above, teasing.

i suppose you are right, it could be difficult to do in 3rd, but it could work, especially in 3rd omni, but third omni isn't easy to do even when you don't try pulling a stunt like that.

but when a writer successfully teases me, that pulls me in like nothing else can. sure, the other stuff can tip the scales, but a tease is like slamming a 1 ton brick on one side of the scale opposing a single gram lead weight.

Posted by Survivor (Member # 213) on :
In the first 13 lines, I'm never looking for much beyond a sense that the author knows how to write. There are three basic elements that are almost always entailed in this.

The one that I usually comment on is establishement of the POV. Until the reader has an idea of the perspective from which the story is told, it is difficult to start putting things into context.

Another point I occasionally make is establishment of scene. This doesn't have to give me the entire milieu (though a scene that narrows down the milieu a bit helps), it just has to establish the physical location for that scene. This is probably more important than POV, the reason that I comment on it less often is because more writers seem to have problems establishing POV in a timely manner than have difficulty remembering to set the scene.

Far and away the most important, even if I rarely mention it, is competence with the English language. If the simple wordcraft of assembling meaningful sentances made of actual English vocabulary is clearly beyond the abilities of the author, I will almost never comment. Further, it isn't likely that anyone could establish scene or POV without mastering the basics of language. It is usually when the language is understandable but not particularly clear or well constructed that I will have something to say on the subject. Really excellent prose can keep me reading without much concern over the establishment of POV or even scene, at least for the first 13. That level of prose is rare, and most who achieve it don't neglect POV and scene, so for that level of prose I'm willing to suspend my desire to see something established for a while in the confidence that the writer does know something about writing.

There are a number of ancillary considerations that can come in once I'm confident that the 13 lines communicate some of the author's intent. I would place the "hook" of a story among these, since if I can tell that a story is going in an interesting direction, that means the writing was good enough to give me that information. "Sympathy" and so forth are also quite dependent on the author doing a good job of using those 13 lines to give me something understandable.

This isn't to say that the various things that we think of as "hooks" don't help, but they only affect my decision to keep reading a story when the skill of the writer is marginal or in cases where the author is using a total anti-hook like necro-pedophilic erotica in the opening of the story. Of course, in reading real books for pleasure rather than review I'm somewhat pickier than that, so I will often crit a story I wouldn't have read normally.

Posted by Christine (Member # 1646) on :
Very good post, Survivor, and as it happens, it reminded me of something I learned in boot camp and have since forgotten because of the focus of this forum.

"Don't use an obvious hook."

In fact, my audition piece to boot camp became the show piece for how to break this advice.

The thing is, obvious hooks feel artificial and editors know that. They are looking for something else, and perhaps Survivor has said it best with his POV, scene, competence triangle. That's not to say that my previous post is useless. In fact, conflict, sympathy, etc., can all be by-products of this triangle. You do have to start at the right spot and it has to be interesting and engaging. It does not have to say "WOW!" and truthfully, the tendency around here to look for that "WOW!" is putting artifical constraints on our openings.

By the way, while i Have ocassionally commented on pieces that seem fundamentally lacking in command of the English language, I don't tend to and keep promising myself never to do so again. That's pre-critique. No one can help a person do that. On the other hand, I don't tell a person that's their problem, either. I keep remembering the person who said, "This person is a bad writer," when commenting on my boot camp audition story. (We were anonymous, but we were also all in the class.) I don't think it was true, but even if it was it served no purpose except to make me cry. It delivers a sense of hopelessness with no possibility of redemption and I won't do that to someone.

Posted by Tess (Member # 2199) on :
I think wbriggs said much of this succinctly up at the top of the thread. Christine and Survivor supplied the detail to explain it.

Coming at it another way, what I want to do in the first 13 is provide
* a hook
* assurance to the reader I'll do a good job, which largely involves being clear, showing sensory detail, and having a clear POV.

The MICE thing I have used to determine where the story starts.

Do I dare suggest another concept? How about Voice? It's different from point of view, but related. I've heard voice described as that elusive quality that editors can't define, but they know it when they see it, and they look for it.

I may have to read a full page to get a sense of voice. And voice happens at different levels. There's the voice of the author, the voice of the narrator, and the voice of a character. All of these combine in some way to give the reader a sense of the overall voice of the piece.

Posted by Survivor (Member # 213) on :
Voice isn't really that elusive. Your breakdown into character, narrator, and author is a good way to think of it logically.

The most obvious is the way that different characters speak in dialogue. It is a critical part of the art of dialogue that the exact words and idioms that your characters use to express themselves reveal aspects of their personalities beyond what they are currently trying to say. The much maligned practice of giving a character a heavy accent is at one end of the scale, at the other we have things like when (or how often) a character chooses to speak and how directly the dialogue addresses the point being discussed. A character that talks around something by saying that it is just "going to let the air in" is telling us volumes about himself. Whether you need to master this kind of voice depends on whether you're stories use dialogue, but most modern fiction goes in for it.

Then there is POV voice. All narratives have a POV of some sort, so you can't get away from this one. In many senses, it functions much the way that the voices of characters in dialogue work. But there are some important differences. Most POV's have constraints on things like how much they can "talk around" the subject before the reader really gets angry. Similarly, accent and heavy idiom used in POV narration are far more noticible and intrusive than in dialogue, partly because of the sheer volume of text that will be affected. While the full range of options for giving the POV a unique voice still exists, the costs of using the outlying tactics tends to concentrate most POV voice work on word choice and diction.

Then you have your own voice as a writer. Your natural, native vocabulary, the phrases and diction that you as an individual use comfortably to express your thoughts. You can affect a false one, though this is probably a bad idea. For some stories (perhaps most), you'll use your natural voice as your POV narrator's voice. Over time, as you learn new vocabulary and develop personal perspectives on the common themes we use language to explore, your own voice evolves and changes, though probably certain elements are rooted more in personality than knowledge.

Of these, it is easiest to craft the voice of character dialogue. You just need to figure out how your characters would talk. POV voice is more difficult, you need to understand how a character thinks (or, if the account is first person, how the character writes--which is to say, how the character thinks, then edits those thoughts for the page). Finally, you have your own voice. Probably, this voice encompasses the range of what you're capable of doing with dialogue and POV voices, and building it is not something you do for each story, it's more or less an extension of yourself like your arms and legs.

I would put the first two under the skills that are part of developing scene and POV. But the last isn't a skill, and it isn't something that you can easily work on except by having a long-term commitment to learning your language. It usually won't show up as a factor in the first few lines of a work except by being clearly deficient. But I'm sure that it is something that editors, as well as all who appreciate literature, do notice in a writer's work.

Posted by Tess (Member # 2199) on :
Nice analysis, survivor. Thank you.

Ever get the feeling that you have to quell your natural vocabulary and sentence structure for a story?

For some stories (perhaps most), you'll use your natural voice as your POV narrator's voice.

That’s a tricky one. I’ve been critiquing the work of a person on another site who received comments from editors saying that her suspense novel reads like “woman’s fiction.” Her author’s voice could easily be adapted to the romance genre, but I don’t think she’s interested in that. Wants to learn exactly what it is about her writing that gives the impression so she can change it.

The conversation is interesting. It hits on sentence structure and gender bias regarding characterization. Too much to get into here in a short post.

When I look at the first 13 I want to feel confident that the author is aware of the complex relationships involved with voice. I think this is something that indicates that a writer is aware of the finer points involved in the craft.

I’m also finding that understanding is easier than doing. I think I understand, and I know I can’t always do. …and then we get into all the other stuff that comes into play, like personal preferences. It’s enough to spin your head a few times.


Posted by Survivor (Member # 213) on :
Eh, that's a tough one.

I would suspect that it is more the concerns and themes that she is exploring in her work that gives that impression. Her voice shouldn't be able to convey that information by itself. But I couldn't tell without reading some of it.

On a more general note, I think that authorial bias is a separate issue from voice, though there are similarities in terms of craft. With both, you want to learn to recognize them in your own work. And you don't want to try to suppress or eliminate either. What you need to do with your own biases is to acknowledge them and understand how they will seem to the audience. Just because a suspense author has a bias towards concentrating on how the story affects the relationships of her female characters, that doesn't mean that I'll consider her a poor author, as long as she makes the right moves to persuade me that I should care about that too, rather than just assuming I already do. If she were writing "woman's fiction", then that assumption would be justified, but when writing suspense it is not.

Card has a lot of very noticible authorial biases. But he can use his voice to write effectively from many different points of view, which has (rather unfortunately for him) led to him having a lot of fans who hate and detest him personally. This isn't because he does anything to hide his biases, it's just that he knows how to write for people that may not share them. Often his personal position on some issue isn't really pertinant to the way it's being used in one of his stories.

Well, I don't know that Card is a helpful example. For all I know, your friend is simply suffering from a bit of self-indulgent digression on topics that seem like woman's issues to most editors.

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