Hi, Ellen here. I met Francelia Belton when I visited Colorado to teach workshops for the Sisters in Crime – Colorado chapter and we totally hit it off, both as writers and human beings. 😉 I’m thrilled to welcome her to Chicks with this wonderful post…
“First Sentences are Doors to Worlds.”
First, I’d like to thank Ellen and the other Chicks for having me here today.
My friend Kathy and I talk a lot about writing. Writing is, after all, what brought us together, so it makes sense.
Recently, we were chatting about quotes. We both love quotes. Kathy shared that one of her all-time favorite quotes is by Ursula K. Le Guin: “First sentences are doors to worlds.”
Wow. I’m certain I’d read or heard it before, but this time, I really thought about it and though the quote is short, those few words pack a punch, don’t they?
The first sentence. The opening line. It’s not just an invitation into the author’s imagination, but a threshold we step over, poking our heads inside a whole new world. From there, paragraph by paragraph, we join the protagonist on their adventure. We tag along on their journey. We follow Aurora Teagarden to a Real Murders Club meeting. We hop aboard the Orient Express with Hercule Poirot. We meet a plucky cosmetologist as she stumbles upon a dead body outside her salon and race with her to figure out whodunit. And if we’re lucky, we tumble out of The End, the exit, satisfied with how the story concluded and a bit sad it’s over, but thrilled to have found a new favorite.
So I think we can all agree that beginnings are crucial. They’re so important, in fact, I know some authors can craft the entire book before they dare deem that first line good enough. The story is done. The characters’ conflict has been resolved. Maybe they even got a happy ending. But the author still must write and re-write that first sentence, seeking perfection. They add and subtract. They delete the whole thing, then copy and paste it back in. They panic when they realize they’ve used the passive voice or an adverb in that critical real estate. It makes sense! All authors want their readers to need to step over the thresholds we present to them, after all! We want them to be unable to put our stories down. We want them to enter the worlds we’ve built and stay for the duration. And the best way to get them there is to hook them from the get-go.
I believe there are as many ways to write a story as there are authors writing stories. We all have different approaches. Some of us start with a character. Some of us start with a general plot idea. Some of us need to know the ending before we begin. And some of us know absolutely nothing and sit down and still, somehow, the words flow and the stories get written. There are plotters and pantsers and plantsers. I don’t believe any process is necessarily right or wrong. You just have to find what works for you.
For me, just as first sentences are doors into worlds built by other authors, they’re also the only entrance for me to get into the worlds I create.
I must have that first sentence before anything else will click into place. It’s the very first element of any story I write. It comes to me before the rest of the world, beckoning me to find out more. I’ve tried and tried, but I can’t write any other way. I suppose, in that way, for me, first sentences are more like welcome mats than doors, telling my characters it’s time to show up, to invite me in and share their stories with me, so I can share them with readers, looking for new worlds to explore.
I write short stories, so my worlds can be quite small and self-contained… or at least they seem that way at first. In the past year, I’ve surprised myself by creating a world (a fictionalized version of Five Points in Denver, Colorado, in the late 1950s) that I’ve wanted to revisit. I have written several stories that take place there. And the beautiful thing about a fictional world… you can find infinite stories there, if you only keep peering through peepholes.
One last thought about first sentences: They don’t just open doors in fiction. My friend Kathy? The one who reminded me of Mrs. Le Guin’s quote? A first sentence in the form of a message I sent her through her Etsy shop opened up a world to a friendship I never could’ve imagined. (I was looking to purchase…what else? A poster for my wall with an inspirational writing quote!)
And, it only seems fitting that I end with another quote:
“Writing is a miracle. You can travel anywhere in the world, to any time and any place – and still be home in time to have dinner.” — Mary Pope Osborne
Authors, what about you? Do you dive into your story and polish the opening later? Is your first line often the last line you finish?
Readers, what are some of the first lines of your favorite stories?
BIO: Francelia Belton’s love of short stories came from watching old Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents television shows in her youth. Her fiction has appeared in various publications, with a new short story coming out in the upcoming Denver Noir anthology by Akashic Books. Her short story, “Knife Girl,” was a finalist in the 2020-2021 ScreenCraft Cinematic Short Story Competition and a semi-finalist in the 2021 Outstanding Screenplays Shorts Competition. You can read more of her stories at https://Francel.Be/Writing-Stories
ABOUT THE COLLECTION: Love and betrayal—the ingredients in any crime of passion. But how dangerous can desire be? For the women in these tales, falling in love may prove to be deadly.
In “Lewenda Gets Married,” a cold-blooded killer questions if happily ever after is possible for someone like them.
In “Sorry, Wrong Address,” a mix-up in house addresses gives pause to immediate revenge.
In the never published before “Collateral Damage,” a railyard robbery gang member will learn if blood is truly thicker than water.
Philosophers and playwrights say, “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” but will these women find their better angels and learn to live and let live?
The elegant, tightly written stories in Francelia Belton’s collection Crime & Passion slip under your skin with the ease and suddenness of an assassin’s knife. The takeaway? Beware a woman scorned. She’ll unman the villains, clean up the mess, and be on her way before the bad guys know what hit them. Readers who love strong women and terrific writing will applaud this anthology.—Barbara Nickless, Wall Street Journal and #1 Amazon Charts bestselling author
Available at all ebook retailers: https://buy.bookfunnel.com/4b0cf2yykn