Writing: Dynamic Beginnings (2 of 2)
If you read the material on Dynamic Beginnings and the 8 rules for starting a novel or short story, this article contains additional “starter” tips and some concrete examples for launching stories. One mechanism that is good for teaching writing self-discipline and makes for an evocative story opening is the six-line opener paragraph. The goal of the opener paragraph is to hook the reader and do most of the things talked about in Dynamic Beginnings. Why six lines? In typical short story format, the manuscript has the title and the first six lines of the story on it. These are the first six lines the editor sees. The idea is to grab not only the editor but your reader as well. The six-liner (or six sentence) format consists of six “functions”.
Line 1: The hook–THE most important line. This is the eye- catch, the mindshare, the part that invites the reader to continue to the second line. The line doesn’t have to explode–it just needs to intrigue. It should be active and evocative in some fashion. If you can, make us aware of the viewpoint character. Make an effort to tie the hook to the last line if possible so that there is a payoff. This is much like what a comedian does with a joke–the hook is the beginning of the setup that frames expectations. The last bit is the punchline or payoff.
Line(s) 2-3: Coordination, setting and setup–If we don’t already have a character name, we need it here. Give us where we are and what’s going on. Keep in mind that what we do here should feed toward the catchy segue that will be in line six. Physical registers and the mood of the story are good things to include here to give us orientation.
Line(s) 4-5: Concentration and focusing–Here we take the setup and like a gun we are aiming toward line six. These lines are really transitional, but they have to do more work than the average transition. They will have description, physical registers, mood and tone in them that move the reader into the catch line.
Line 6: The catch/grab–This is the payoff line. Like the hook it should be something evocative. In a way, it’s MORE important than the hook because it should inspire the reader to flip the page (remember this is the front of the manuscript). It’s easier said than done, but it’s something to really strive for and when it works, it works WELL.
Structural and creative concerns
I won’t lie to you. Doing the six-liner is not easy. Not only do you need the elements, but it needs to flow as well. The sentences are going to be loaded and there needs to be a rhythm for it to work. It can be done as I will show in some examples. It is a good paradigm to work toward especially for short story work. While really for short stories, it’s an awesome way to introduce a novel. An editor seeing a well written six liner is going to have that “in good hands” feeling when they see a chapter one that opens like this.
On Aarlen’s eleventh birthday, Father gave her a sword and said by the time a year passed she would take a man’s life with it. Now, the bone-colored courtyard walls seemed to close around her. She gripped the sword’s hilt. The cool metal numbed her callused hand. The rankness of smoke and decay hung in the air. Father’s words of a year ago gnawed at her. Today was Aarlen’s twelfth birthday.
Comments: The setup is that our 11 year old protagonist is going to murder someone on her 12th birthday. The payoff… today is her 12th birthday. This captures the whole universe of the story. The in-between lines set the stage and give mood tone, and emotional register.
The techs back at cyber-silicon called me a man obsessed and I was readying to prove it when I noticed her crawling through the snow. Alone on the cornice, skis tuned sharp and legs tight, I blinked and studied the run again. She wore strange buff-colored clothing and didn’t look like a fallen skier. The wind fanned her inky hair as she slithered up the incline, clawing up the icy slope with bare hands. Seeing the curve of buttocks and thighs, I realized why her clothes seemed unusual. There weren’t any.
Comments: The hook in this one is more of a setup than a real strong hook. The word “obsessed” is a beat that is key to the story. The payoff line really plays off of line five as a kind of “gotcha” to make you turn the page.
Imagine a morning when the sun failed to rise. Millions awaited the glimmering on the horizon that never came. Now, the world lives in twilight. Some call it the work of Satan, others God. A few cite aliens or rifts in the space/time continuum. Who’s right? I don’t know. I’m certain of one thing, I was born at 5:23 a.m., the exact time of that never-to-come sunrise. To honor the moment, Mother named me Ebondawn.
Comments: This one has more than six sentences, but still fits on six manuscript lines. The structure is a bit odd because the narrative viewpoint is talking to the reader and setting up the world. The whole thing feeds into the name of the protagonist as the payoff. Not one of my best, but I believe effective.
Greek To Me
I dangled over the cliff, only the will to live holding me suspended above the barnacle studded boulders. Breakers lashed the rocks and night birds cried. The granite grew moist under my hands as I tried again to pull myself to safety. Muscles shuddering, I rose until I could see over the brink. Arms crossed, unmoving, dark-haired Alecta stared at me, the light from the cloud-ripped moon reflecting in her eyes.
Comments: The opening hook is rather obvious in this one. This one gets to the payoff with 5 sentences (fitting on six lines). The payoff is that while the man is falling off the cliff, the wife is standing there watching.
“The best gallows job I ever did, and he survived anyway. Guess we’ll have to hang him again.” The gallowsman’s raspy words inspired both wonder and horror in Bannor. In last moments before the scaffold hatch slammed open, he’d fervently wished he could survive and escape to find the slavers who took Sarai. If he died, his betrothed would suffer a life of misery beneath a slaver’s lash.
Comments: This is the opening for a novel. The hook “guess we’ll have to hang him again” actually occurs in the second sentence, but is all one piece of dialogue. This is another one that is done in 5 sentences but six lines. The whole desperation of the moment I think is adequately summed up in the last line.
Shaladen Chronicles: A Knot In Time
Dulcere Val’Saedra Starbinder phased back into real-time in a blaze of analogue energies. The discharge of chronal power crackled around her anomaly compensation field. Her twin hearts thundered, and she drew air with lungs that had been filled with nothing but the frigid cold of the void for far too long. Her gambit paid off—freedom! That despot Meridian would not again control her. Free she might be, but not in time to avert the cataclysm. Nothing remained for her now except to rectify the situation, or die in the attempt.
Comments: This another opening for a novel, and this one is a bit long (it doesn’t get the job done in six physical lines). It’s complicated, it’s science fiction, and just couldn’t be mashed down much more. It does set expectations by the end.
Atop the judgment dais, Euriel Idundaughter Kergatha struggled to break free before Hecate’s priests dragged away her seven-summer old daughter. Little blonde Liandra kicked and screamed as the baldheaded men in red tunics towed the child across the audience chamber floor. Each shriek stabbed into Euriel’s heart as they echoed off the vaulted marble ceilings and rattled the stained glass mosaics.
Comments: Yet another novel opening. It introduces the character in extremis and sets the stage for the action to come. This is the quintessential action opener, throwing the reader into the middle of the story without any superfluous backstory.
Pinch Me If You’re Real
The last things Gil Bluepath saw as his bike left the dune two hundred feet above the desert floor were a glint of red and his life flashing before his eyes. He would have conceived something less cliche’ than a flashing life if only there’d been time. With his borrowed Honda Enduro swan-diving over the edge of a Southern California dustbowl the size of a baseball stadium, Gil didn’t have the luxury of being original. He could only cuss and wish for the ability to fly.
Comments: This is another novel start that I throw in because it’s more off beat. The novel itself is written with kind of a wry tongue-in-cheek tone. So, even the beginning is a bit disjointed and a little outside the formula discussed.
As shown above, the paradigm can work. It can be extremely effective and teach you a great deal about loading your sentences and focusing the story. It is all about knowing your premise and compressing the essence of it into a small space (about 60 – 80 words).
With luck, this will inspire you to compose your own six-line openers.
First published in 1983, Will Greenway started his creative career wanting to draw and script comics. After a number of years, he found writing better suited to his skills. Aside from writing and art, Will is a self-taught programmer, PC technician, and network troubleshooter. He enjoys skiing, racquetball, Frisbee golf, and is steadfast supporter of role-playing games. To date, he has completed eighteen novels more than twenty short stories, and numerous articles on writing. He resides in the Spring Valley suburb of south San Diego.
Below is one series in his incredible Ring Realms Universe…