Building Your World in Your First Line

by Jonathan Ammon

When we’re leaving a bookstore, my wife Tatiana and I like to play a game: we go through our bag of purchases, and we read aloud the first line from each of the new books. Whoever has the book with the agreed-upon best first line wins.

Our game puts more emphasis on the first line than the casual reader, but it reminds me of the importance of first lines every time I sit down to write. Your first line is the reader’s first impression of your actual work. It will stand out more than any other line in the book—except perhaps the final line, and by then your story is over. Your first line can command attention and can demand that we continue reading.

Tatiana and I find different reasons to elect first-line winners. It might be the style or poetry of the line. It might be the way the line introduces a character. The first line may contain questions that we find ourselves pondering. It might make us laugh.

Continue reading “Building Your World in Your First Line”

Narrative Summary—How? Why? When?

Bitter End ArtBitter End Art

Art by Carl Mueller, 1940

In my head, it’s clear that, in fiction, dramatic events need to be shown in scene. A single point-of-view character wants something and strives against obstacles to get it—all shown in the real-time of the story.

And mundane events need to be omitted or presented in well-crafted narrative summary. That’s The Rule.   And when writers follow The Rule, their stories zip along with verve. But The Rule leaves me floundering.

Continue reading “Narrative Summary—How? Why? When?”

Ways to Create Subtext

His Girl Friday stars

“…but I know it when I see it—”

Subtext can be hard to define, but it’s worth the effort. It makes room for the part of a scene the intelligent reader brings to the story. Of course, the expertise of the clever-and-confident author sparks the reader’s contribution.

Characters often use subtext when blurting out the plain truth would be painful or embarrassing. Writers often use subtext to add humor or to keep the reader involved.

Here’s my fallback example for teaching what subtext is. [It appeared in a previous blog, and here it is again with explanation.) It comes in before-and-after flavors.

Continue reading “Ways to Create Subtext”

How To Write the Emotion-Packed Scene

3 muses in line at Starbuck's

Get Inside Your Character’s Head

At the start of a story, I like to be very deep inside my character because I hope my readers will empathize with the character and come along for the story journey. I practice seeing through his eyes. Depending on how my character is doing emotionally, a walk in the woods can be a peaceful commune with nature or nerve-wracking trek haunted by scary noises. Through most of the story staying as close as possible works well.

But if my hero is going to do something less than honorable or a character is going to suffer a devastating loss, it could be helpful to pull back a little so the reader sympathizes, rather than empathizes. It’s as simple as moving from “Grandpa” to “Jack’s grandpa,” just a bit of distance.

By moving in and out, the writer can control how much the reader needs to feel to stay connected.

Continue reading “How To Write the Emotion-Packed Scene”

Early Questions to Shape Your Story

Reading time: 3 minutes

Blank pages are not scary (A mantra to chant while you shower.)

The next time you’re faced with another beginning writing session, consider this strategy. Don’t lose a moment; show those naked passages who’s boss, and whip out your handy-dandy list of questions.

Questions About the Existing Manuscript

Simply write out decisions you’ve already made about the book. If there’s a question for which you have no decision, just mark it N/A and go on. Please remember this whole process is fun. It’s a discovery, growth, a move toward truth and important action.

Who is the hero of your book?

What does she want?
Continue reading “Early Questions to Shape Your Story”

Battling the Dreaded SAP

15475938 - illustration of a road accident and the man with the wheel

Reading time: 4 minutes

When I’m editing fiction or nonfiction, one of the most common speed bumps I trip on is The Simultaneous Action Problem (SAP). Sounds serious, right?

It’s not. It’s also known as the AS/While Issue, and it’s just a speedbump. It happens when the author uses as or while to show simultaneous action.

The problem occurs because we live—doing and being and thinking—many things all at the same time, but we read linearly.
Continue reading “Battling the Dreaded SAP”

An Easy Way to Add Power to Your Sentences, Paragraphs, Scenes & Chapters

Reading time: 4 minutes

Remember being in fifth grade? Imagine yourself at a birthday party, sitting in a circle with your buds and playing a rousing game of Telephone. One kid whispers a message to the kid beside him, and she passes it to the next kid—all the way around the circle.  By the time it gets back to the origin, the message is bent and bloated—except for the last word. The last word in the message is the one everyone can remember.

This is a great tip for a writer. We remember the last word.

Continue reading “An Easy Way to Add Power to Your Sentences, Paragraphs, Scenes & Chapters”