The First Sentence – or, How Lee Child Gets It Right

lee childI picked up the latest Lee Child novel, Never Go Back – well, grabbed it out of my wife’s hand as she walked through the door – and opened it up to the first page. After the first sentence I had to pause. ‘He nailed it,’ I thought to myself, ‘the bugger did it again.’ Then I dove back in and didn’t surface for two days.

Let me explain. I’ve been studying writing for a few years now, learning anything I can about how to get it right. More and more in today’s world of instant hits and fast rejections, ‘getting it right’ means catching the reader from the first page and not letting go. Ideally you want to engage the reader in the very first sentence. You want to bring them personally into the story, introduce tension, ask a question, intrigue and excite your reader as soon as you can.

Not too much to ask from a sentence, is it? Let’s see how it’s done by a master.

“Eventually they put Reacher in a car and drove him to a motel a mile away, where the night clerk gave him a room, which had all the features Reacher expected, because he had seen such rooms a thousand times before.”

Even if you’ve never encountered this series before, you’re interested. Sounds like a strange sort of guy with a nomadic past, messed up with some sort of people who have control over him. Maybe you’ll read some more. Maybe you’ll even like it.

If you are a writer, or a student of writing, you’re gobsmacked. Stunned. In 41 words Lee Child has managed to accomplish everything.

Bring the reader into the story, into the middle of the action. The very first word does that. One word – Eventually – tells you that lots has already happened, has you arriving in the middle of something juicy. What’s happened? You really want to find out. It’s even okay that the novel starts with an adverb, for heaven’s sake. One single word, and you are hitting the ground running.

Pose the reader a question. Well, how better to throw out a question than to use the universal bogeyman, ‘they’? We don’t know who they are. We know there’s more than one of them, and we know they are strong enough to control and dictate the movements of a nomad. They even have enough cash to spring for a motel room. That’s enough. We want to know more about who ‘they’ are, and we are willing to invest the reading time to find out.

We’re on word two now, in case you lost track.

Introduce the character. Okay, his name is Reacher. Assuming the very mention of the name doesn’t ignite a passion for unstoppable vigilante justice in your breast – that you’ve never read a Reacher novel, in other words – you’re still intrigued. Nice name. Evocative. Is he being overpowered by these people, or going along for the ride? Why has he been in a thousand motel rooms? He seems singularly unimpressed with this turn of events. Maybe you’ll read more. Consider the character introduced. You’ll have to wait a page or two before he destroys his first round of opposition and you really get to know him. For now, you’ll just keep reading.seedy motel bed

Okay, almost done. Throw in a taste of description, the dash of seasoning to set the scene. A motel room, a car, everything you expect and nothing more. We’ve all been there. We all know the place. We’re instantly comfortable. We don’t need to know anything else in order to get on with the important stuff.

The hook is set. In one sentence. Wow.

Lots can be learned from studying the really good writers, especially once you have an idea what to look for. Of course, Never Go Back turns into a ripping good read and Lee Child has a bunch more to teach us along the way – but you’ll have to pick up the book for that. I highly advise it. Just make sure you have a day or two with nothing else on your schedule.

Published in: on December 9, 2013 at 5:00 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Character Driven Novel – Mark An X On The Map

mapI’m starting the planning process for my next novel. This time I’m trying on Elizabeth George’s excellent and comprehensive outlining procedure, which includes doing a perceptive and searching analysis of each major character. Wouldn’t you know it? It’s working.

A novel is a nebulous thing when it first starts out – an opening scene, maybe two strong characters colliding, maybe an idea for a bang-up action climax. It’s all nice to have a handle, but then you have to dive into the thing. Find out what it’s all about. Who your characters are, and how (and why) they go from here to there.

Treacherous Terrain

Your characters are allowed, even encouraged, to stumble around in the dark, but you are not. (I’m talking to the planners here, not the pantsers, which is a different adventure entirely.) You have to know the map. You have to know where your protagonist is, where he is going to end up, and the treacherous terrain he needs to cross to get there. This is true on the level of physical action and circumstance, but also internally. Your protagonist – and all your major characters – need to change and evolve personally during the story. And you have to know how, and why, and how to get them there.

It all starts with the character analysis. What is my main man’s psychological crutch? Why does he have it? What does he do when someone knocks it out from under him? What’s his biggest hang-up? What does he most love, most hate? What do others see when he walks into the room? Questions like this, and the others on Elizabeth’s Prompt Sheet, are already revealing to me what struggle my protagonist needs to go through in this story. From there it is easier to figure out what obstacles to throw at him to facilitate the change. Poor bastard.

Only One X

Note I said struggle, and change. Singular. Novels are intricate and complex beasts, but I believe that my protagonist should only go through one major change from beginning to end. The main thrust of the story, the theme, the one brick wall he must climb to be a better person at the end. Knowing what that one struggle is, and limiting it to only the one, makes for a strong story that will pull the reader along. When your reader can stand at the start of the map and dimly perceive one clear and decisive X marked on the opposite side of it, then they can charge off on the protagonist’s harrowing adventure with a will.

This won’t make for a simpleminded story. I’m talking the protagonist’s journey here; you still have other characters, and side plots, and of course there is always the bad guy. They have their character analyses, too. They have their own struggles, their own changes they must make (or refuse to) by the end. Their stories are the weave and twist around the strong line of the protagonist’s journey that make things intricate and rich.

So here I am, carving out my characters, and furiously jotting down notes of discovery and exclamation on the side – this is the past incident that gave my guy a twist in his gut, this is what he needs to work out in this story. Which will need this scene, and this struggle, and would reflect nicely in this character’s plotline … well, like Elizabeth says, I’ll end up with far more ideas and inspirations than I can use. But I will know my starting point, and I will know my X.

The rest is simply the wilderness. And that’s the fun part.