17.2: It Was a Promise of Three Parts
The title of this episode comes to us from the first paragraph of The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss—a novel which delights us with turns of phrase and evocative prose from beginning to end.
We’re continuing our exploration of “promises as a structure” by looking at the promises made by the prose of your first line, first paragraph, and first page. What does your first line say about the rest of your book? Did you mean for it to say that? Is your first line writing checks that your later chapters can actually cash?
Liner Notes: We did an eight-episode master class on first lines, pages, and paragraphs with DongWon Song. It begins with 16.27.
Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.
Homework: Write six different 1st lines, each of which makes a promise you don’t think you can keep. Ask yourself WHY you can’t keep it.
Thing of the week: Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls, by Kaela Rivera.
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Key points: Sometimes the first line promises beautiful and evocative prose. Often pilots and prologues are violent or romantic, to show the range of what you can expect. Action, excitement, characters at their extreme. Try flipping to the middle! Use revisions to create consistency. Craft your promise and deliver on it. Use chapter beginnings as opportunities to write killer first lines. Watch for the dips when you’re connecting the tent poles you are excited about.
[Season 17, Episode 2]
[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, It Was a Promise of Three Parts.
[Kaela] 15 minutes long.
[Sandra] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Megan] And we’re not that smart.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Kaela] I’m Kaela.
[Sandra] I’m Sandra.
[Megan] And I’m Meg.
[Howard] The title of this episode comes to us paraphrasedly from the opening line of Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. Which I’m going to go ahead and read in its entirety.
It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.
This is beautiful and evocative prose. Among the many things that this first line does, it promises us a book in which there is going to be beautiful and evocative prose. Rothfuss’s writing is delicious. It is… It’s delicious. That’s just a great word to lead with. When we talk about first lines, first scenes, first paragraphs, first pages, first chapters. Establishing shots. Overtures for a musical. Opening splash pages in a comic. All of these things make promises to the audience about what’s going to follow. We need to make sure that we make those promises consciously. So let’s talk a little bit about what some of those promises are. Meg, I think you had an example from Lower Decks that you wanted to…
[Megan] As a call back, when Howard was talking about the Lower Decks pilot, I brought this up in our notes as an example to really hammer home in this episode. Often, the pilot episode of a television series needs to show the full range of what you’re going to experience within the show. So this means your pilot is often the most violent or it has the most romantic content. This is one of the reasons why, also branching over to books, you’ll often have a prologue that’s full of action and excitement for you to meet our main character. So, the specific cold open that Howard mentioned, when we first meet Boimler and Mariner initially put a lot of viewers off the show, because Mariner was so extremely Mariner and Boimler was so extremely Boimler. But in order to introduce these two characters, we had to see them at their most extremes to get an idea of what their dynamic would be like throughout the show. The final bit is that slice into Boimler’s life at the very end of the cold open with… You can see the sinews and the tendons and the little fountain of blood to show that, oh, hey, other Star Trek shows are not going to have the kind of… I’m not going to say gore, but we’re going to go a little bit further visually then your use to in a Star Trek. So that minute and a half had to show the full extremes of what the comedy, action, and characters would be like through the remainder of Lower Decks.
[Howard] Well, that first episode was, if memory serves, a splotchy Star Trek zombie comedy in which at the end of it, well, it’s Star Trek, we found a medical cure and the zombies all got better.
[Ramsey met a guy, but… Giggles]
[Howard] Oh, yeah. I mean, there were a couple who were now nothing but ex-zombie excrement, but the… That slice in the opening promises us, to borrow the title from Brian McClellan’s debut novel, it’s a promise of blood…
[Howard] And then the episode delivers that.
[Kaela] I like… For starters, you just explained to me pilots in a way that will make me kinder to pilots for the rest of my life.
[Me, too] [laughter]
[Kaela] I love it. But it brings to the fore, for me, how… Which is what we talked about last episode, genres are different, and mediums are different. Because in a book, you don’t want to telegraph that much all upfront. You do need to telegraph some. You need to let people know this is what you are signing up for. However, in a book, some of this is what you can expect from this book is taken care of by the packaging of the book, the cover, the art, the back blurb, which will all talk about in a later episode in more detail. But we, as writers and creators, that first page, that first chapter, gets so much rewriting because you have to promise the right things.
[Megan] I had a friend once… Rachel, I’m going to say you by name…
[Megan] Once, I gave her a copy of one of my favorite books. I actually think it may have been The Way of Kings. I’m like, “This is my very favorite book, and you will love it.” She takes it from my hand and opens to the middle of the book and start reading. I actually yelled the word “Spoilers!”
[Megan] And I smacked it out of her hands.
[Megan] She’s like, “What are you doing?” I’m like, “What are you doing?” She says, “Well, I find the first chapter of books to be very overwrought because that’s where the author spends most of their time.” So she always reads a page of prose in the middle of a book, any book, to see if she likes the author’s voice, and then she will start it from the beginning. Which I think is just… Makes sense…
[Megan] It makes sense.
[Howard] No, that’s fair. Because if you’re reading a page from the middle of the book and… You read the opening, and you’re like,” Oh, wow, this looks good.” Then you flip to the middle of the book. If I’d flipped to the middle of The Name of the Wind and it was suddenly super, super dry, low-end, workmen’s prose… Sigh. Then the promise of the front of the book is not being kept in the middle, and I might not have read it.
[Sandra] Yeah, I know of a…
[Howard] The challenge for us… Sorry to keep going. The challenge for us is to make our first lines and are pages and paragraphs not overwrought, but wrought to the same extent as we are going to wreak… Wrought, wreak…
[I think it’s wreak]
[Howard] Wring the rest of the book.
[Sandra] Yeah. I once… I knew of an author who sold a three book deal after the first book was written and the other two were not, and sold it on the strength of the first two chapters, which then got completely edited out of existence.
[Sandra] So, the thing that had hooked the editor, and the agent and everything, was wiped out. The whole series kind of just fell flat for everyone. Book 2 kept just like not being accepted and not being accepted and not being accepted. It was just, to me, case of that… Part of the problem was that those first chapters didn’t actually match any of the other stuff. They were gorgeous and beautiful, and the rest was so much weaker in comparison. We don’t want to do that either.
[Howard] Yeah. You don’t try out for the long distance team by showing them how quickly you can run the 50 yard dash.
[Megan] In… Wait. No, I got it. Sorry. Reset. In video games, something that will happen, especially in very long story driven games, is you will start with a big action sequence, with a lot more abilities than your character will normally have later on in the game. So I’m thinking the opening of Ghost of Tsushima, the opening of the first Assassins Creed game, where you’re playing a character at full strength. Then something happens that nerfs them back down to level I. It’s a way to promise your audience that, “Hey, listen. Although you’re going to start at a level I, can’t do anything person, you will eventually work up to be this great grand thing.” This is why shows like Star Wars or books like Eragon open with this big action sequence of a princess running from the villains with something very important that ends up in the hands of this farmboy. That happens in both of those. It’s to promise the audience that, yeah, our protagonist is at the very beginning of their journey, but it inherently has this promise that eventually they will get to the level where they are participating in the story on this grand scale.
[Howard] I think one of the finest examples of this is the mission completion text of the first gun mission in Borderlands 2. The mission completion text is, “You just moved 5 feet and opened a locker. Later, when you’re killing skyscraper-sized monsters with a gun that shoots lightning, you’ll look back at this moment and be like, heh.”
[Howard] It’s perfect. It’s perfect because… Yeah, you’re told what’s coming.
[Howard] We need a book of the week. I have paged away from my outline. Who’s got that?
[Kaela] That is me. Oh, uh… Wait.
[Yes. Yes, it is you.]
[Kaela] It is my book! So prepare yourself.
[Kaela] Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls is the book of the week. The reason why I suggested it for this episode is because, as I have been doing school visits and things like that, I read out like the first page and a halfish, the first page is actually half a page, anyway. So I read that out to the kids, and my favorite part is ending right after the main character, she’s lost in the desert, ending right after she turns around, looks up, and she meets her first dark criatura. It is a woman who is half skeleton, traced by the moonlight, and is like known as the devourer. She’s like, “Don’t eat me.” Is her thing, and I end right there. That’s because, from the very beginning, I want people to know that even though that, yes, this is a middle grade adventure and it is… Like, we’re starting out in an adventure. We’re out in the desert, we’re soaked in what the world is like, we have a very fearful main character because she’s going to be throughout the book, and we’re meeting very otherworldly, very frightening things. She is going to be in life-threatening situations very often. But also, they’re cool, and the pros as well, I’ve found very important to bring in some of the descriptions, like the stripes of moonlight coming through her ribs, things like that. Where you know that going to be soaked into this world from the beginning. You’re going to be meeting very ancient, very primordial creatures who are both dangerous but also quite unexpectedly kind as well. Because this criatura ends up taking her home. Even though she’s known as the devourer.
[Howard] Thank you. So that’s Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls. Cece is spelled c.e.c.e., for those of you who are thinking it’s a carbon copy email to Rios.
[Howard] No. Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls by Kaela Rivera.
[Howard] Meg. You’ve got your hand up, and no one can see it except those of us with cameras.
[Megan] That’s something, as you’re creating, as you’re writing, as you’re drawing, whatever you’re making. Check back in. What is the promise of the premise that you’ve set up? Are you still bringing the same level of fire and excitement to the remainder of your book as you do in that very beginning part that you’ve polished and framed?
[Howard] How do you avoid the problem of writing checks you can’t cash in your first page? How do you avoid being so clever or so purple or so whatever that you just can’t maintain it for a book?
[Sandra] Well, this is a problem we all have.
[Sandra] I mean, like… It’s… One of the things I think to make sure is while, yes, we do end up spending a lot of time on getting that beginning right, doing what Meg’s friend did and flipping to the middle and seeing what does the middle feel like, and maybe when you see what the middle feels like, while we want to telegraph this book is going to be exciting and whatever, if your book is actually contemplative, trying to make it exciting in chapter 1 is setting a bad expectation. So if you have a contemplative, quiet book, then you do want a contemplative, quiet opening. Because lips us even though that feels like, oh, no, people won’t get hooked, yes, they will. They will, because they ca… If they’re a person who wants a contemplative book, and they pick up and see excitement, they’re going to put the book down. So then you’ve suddenly created a mismatch between the reader and what you’re delivering.
[Kaela] Yeah. I think this is particularly achieved through revisions. Like, no matter what media you are doing, whether you’re doing books, video games, whether you’re making a show, you need to do revisions. It’s inevitable. Because that’s how you get consistency. I think consistency is absolutely key to this. Both crafting the right promise and delivering on that promise. Because, for example, both pacing and tonally wise, a previous book of mine that is not published and will need major revisions, like, the first third of the book was this very slice of life experience, and it was contemplative and soft and painful and hard and beautiful. Then, the last two thirds are this life or death video game tournament, where you’re like, “Go, go, go, go!” Even though I liked both of these things, it did not mesh into the same book properly.
[Howard] You have written two very cool books.
[Howard] Or at least parts of two very cool books.
[Kaela] And they’re both unfinished. Yeah.
[Howard] One of the tools that I use is treating chapter beginning as another opportunity to write a killer first-line. I’ll review my first-line and I’ll ask myself, okay, was it awesome because it planted a hook, was it awesome because it was pithy, was it awesome because it described something in a new way? Do I do that again, or do I do what the first-line didn’t do, and do something else in order to show that this chapter still has a powerful first-line, but contains a continuation of the story in an expanding sort of way? But always treating… Always treating the page turn to a new chapter as an opportunity to overwrought again.
[Sandra] Yeah. One of the tools that I really find very powerful is finding the voice of your book. This is a thing that newer writers are sometimes very, very confused by, because voices this amalgamation a lot of word choice and tone shift and character voice and all of these things. But when you… Like… When you find the voice for the book as a whole, you can then go back to your beginning and make sure that the voice is matching. Again, it’s flip to the middle and make your beginning promise accurately what the middle is delivering.
[Howard] Flip to the middle, but be standing more than an arm’s length away from Meg…
[Yes. Laughter. Garbled.]
[Megan] Something else is when you are working on a creative… We all start with an idea. Be that one scene we love, one character we love. Something you need to watch out for is you set your tent poles of the scenes you’re really excited for, and the dips come when you’re like, ugh, I have to connect these, but it’s so boring to get from A to B. You may either need to take out a tentpole or put something more interesting in the canvas of your connectivity.
[Howard] Yep. One of the things that I found working on the illustrations for Extreme Dungeon Mastery version 2, and I knew this going into it. I’ve got about a couple of hundred pictures to draw, and I knew that my style and my technique and my stamina was going to change on the way through. I was going to get better at what I was doing, and I was going to get tired of doing it. That was going to change things. One of the ways I tackled that was by drawing some of the last pictures first and revisiting some of the first pictures later, and doing a little bit of revision.
[Howard] We are approaching a 20 minute episode of a 15 minute podcast. So, I think it’s time for homework. I’ve got our homework. You ready for this? Write six different first lines. For your work in progress or for a work in progress that you’re imagining maybe sometime someday doing. Or maybe for six different works in progress. Six different first lines. But each of them should make a promise that you personally don’t think you can keep. Now ask yourself why you don’t think you can keep it, and how you would change the first-line to be something that you can do. There you go. This has been Writing Excuses. Thank you for listening to us. You are out of excuses. Now go write.