Sunday, April 8, 2012

First Impressions

Recently my college roommate came to speak to students at the college where I am now a professor. We showed a video featuring her on various TV shows by way of introduction. After that, I said a few words and then turned the crowd over to her. She almost leapt out of her seat and in a loud voice she exhorted the auditorium full of people to get up and greet someone else in the room as if that person was a long lost friend. Within seconds the place was noisy with laughter and chatter. Then she quieted us down and began to explain the importance of the greeting.

When meeting someone new, the first impression carries enormous weight, according to my friend, the body language expert. Her entire talk was on first impressions and she’d made an indelible one. After her session, the students didn’t want to leave. They formed a semi-circle around her and peppered her with questions until I was finally able to drag her away.

I thought of that beginning, that first impression this morning as I was remembering some of the manuscripts I’d read for a contest last year. What my friend had said about first impressions was also true for writing. Your writing should leap off the page from the very beginning. Just as you are looking for “cues” when you first meet another person, your reader is looking for cues to figure out whether or not she wants to commit to you.

In some of the stories I read for the contest I had to plod through paragraphs that became pages before I finally felt connected to the story. It was all expository material, telling, telling, and more telling. When you send a story to a magazine or to an editor in hopes of publication, you need to catch them from the first sentence. You’ve probably heard this and wondered, but how? Why does one story’s beginning make such a good first impression, and another is just ho-hum.

Part of the answer to that is personal taste. Some readers like stories about kittens. Some readers want a bloody axe murder. That part you can't control. However, you can control how quickly you bring your reader into the story. For my money, the quicker the better. To make a good first impression, you need voice, imagery, and a singular perspective.

Here is the first paragraph from a chapter in Tamara Titus’s work in progress, a novel about a 20th-Century leper colony in Louisiana:

Chen glanced up when the door to the canteen opened. The tables had been slow all morning—just a few poker players and a Mexican who came in once a week to shoot dice—and all the dealers were hungry. He sank his hand into the fan-tan bowl, allowing the beads to sift through his fingers. The man who had opened the door was well known to him: Early Wilson lived in House Twenty-Six, and normally he was a good loser, quick to laugh and shrug off misfortune. But a year of positive tests had stolen his smile, leaving swelling and lesions in its place. Yes, Chen thought, the disease was gaining ground. Luck had abandoned Early Wilson, and now he was bad for business.

Immediately we are in a point of view. Immediately we are in a place. And by sentence three we are being given sensory details to ground us into the setting. By the end of the paragraph we’ve been given some internal monologue as well so we are firmly in this character’s perspective. And let’s not forget the tension -- the hungry dealers, the bad luck, the disappearance of the man’s smile. This writer has given us every reason to keep reading.

But let’s suppose you are not writing fiction. You’re writing memoir, and you want to explain things to the reader. You feel you need her to understand the backstory first, give her some context, right? Well . . . not necessarily. Let’s look at a passage by Natalie Stewart, a student writer at Queens University. It’s either memoir or written like memoir.

Her name was Dareth, which I found incredibly androgynous and unique. She was no taller than 5’2 and had the tiny body of a child tennis-pro-hopeful. The summer had intensified the tiny brown freckles that covered her from hair line to toe nail and lightened her gold hair in perfect lines to the bun at the crown of her head. I was 18 years old; she was 27. We didn’t exactly have the same hobbies, so we would never have met if we didn’t work in the same restaurant. I was a hostess at Village Tavern, an upscale casual neighborhood place where the hillbillies could feel fancy and the lawyers let their hair down over a decent cosmopolitan. From my post behind the podium at the front door, I could see into the open doorway of the dark bar past the tie-back black curtains where she stood center stage.

So this doesn’t exactly start in the middle of a scene, but it has the same immediacy. The story shows a distinct perspective, a voice that is willing to assert itself in the first sentence. Then that opening is followed by a wonderful cascade of visual details. The setting is visceral and summed up by someone with a sharp eye. The end of the paragraph circles back to the beginning, to Dareth. Whatever the backstory is, it will come later. As a reader I am not worried. I’m willing to simply follow the writer and her obsession. Right now, I want to learn more about this woman and this situation.

You know this already. You know how important the beginning is. But sometimes we forget. We need reminding that first impressions really do matter. If you’ve got a piece that you think isn’t working as well as you’d like it to work, look carefully at your first paragraph. Is this the strongest place you can begin? Is there a powerful moment buried somewhere in the story that needs to be dredged up to the surface? Pull it out. Start there and move forward.

Two simple exercises:

1. Go through your favorite books, stories, or essays -- at least ten of them. Look at beginnings. What made you want to keep reading? Do they start in the heat of a moment? Is there something intriguing about the voice that pulls you into the narrative? What visual, tactile, and aural details help create a sense of thereness?
2. Think of at least three dramatic events in your life. Write the first sentence of a narrative about each of those events. Then choose the one that has the most life to it and write a paragraph. Don’t write backstory. Don’t give us exposition. Be right there in the moment. What were you seeing, feeling, and thinking? Hmm. It’s good, isn’t it? Well, keep going.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this useful reminder. It made me think of the first chapter of my novel. I know it's got to shine, so after I complete my first draft and before I begin revisions, I'll follow your suggestion to study the openings of my favorite books. I'm sure that will be a very instructive exercise.