Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Craft Book of the Month:The Fire in Fiction

Week 4: First lines, last lines

It's the last Wednesday in October already?! Man, it feels as if the month has just started, and now we're about to be overrun with candy-hungry ghoulies and ghosties (or, in my house, vampires and pirates.) But before that auspicious event, we have to get in my final post on the book which will set your fiction ablaze: The Fire in Fiction.

There is so much in this book, and I barely scratched the surface. It could be "Craft Book of the Year," were I so inclined. However, I have set myself a goal to introduce a new craft book a month, and I am nothing if not inflexible.

First lines, last lines is an important technique to improve your scenes. In Maass' experience, many authors don't bother to pay attention to the importance of first and last lines in their scenes. As Maass says:
That's a shame. Like a handshake, an opening and closing line can create impressions and expectations. They can set a tone. They can signal where we're going, or what we've done, or serve any number of useful story purposes.
Maass' examples include one by Meg Cabot. I'll recap what he says about her use of first lines and last lines from a scene in How to be Popular (2006).

The protagonist, Steph Landry, is an eleventh-grader with the reputation for being a klutz. With the help of an old book titled How to be Popular, she finds herself in with the in-crowd. One of her big breakthroughs comes when her friend, Jason, can't drive her home from school. Steph's faced with riding the bus. But popular Mark Finley shames one of the A-listers into giving Steph and her B-list friend a ride. Here's Cabot's scene opener:
I think I died and went to heaven.
Here are Maass' comments:
Eleventh grade is far from heaven, if you ask me, but we get the point. Notice that at the beginning of the scene, Steph has not yet copped a ride... Cabot is creating anticipation, a form of tension, by framing the scene. We read ahead to find out why Steph's so elated. This flashback structure happens so quickly we hardly notice. It's not a technique that will work for every scene, but it illustrates the importance of tension in line one.
By the end of the scene there are uneasy hints of the cost of Steph's new popularity. Still, Steph is happy--maybe irrationally so. How would you cap off this scene? Here's Cabot's choice:
Jason freaking out and refusing to give me rides anymore might just be the best thing that ever happened.
The very best thing, ever? I wonder if that's true... which is exactly what Cabot wants us to do at this moment.

Finally, Maass advises us to do a "first line/last line draft"--doing nothing but honing the bookends of every scene in our manuscripts. Making these little changes, he believes, will give our stories a more effective shape.

I'll be announcing November's craft book tomorrow. Till then, may all your little tricks be treats.

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