Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Red Flags in Opening Sentences

Theresa says:

Well, I guess you're not bored with all the talk about openings. :)

Here's what I think we should do. I'm going to try to formulate a checklist of sorts for red flags. We'll also talk a little about why these things function as red flags, and then if you're all up for it, we can parse some sample openings. Reader Ian has already volunteered his opening sentences, and if any of you want the same treatment, email the first three sentences of your manuscript to edittorrent at gmail dot com. We'll do them anonymously unless you tell us it's okay to use your first name. (I'm hoping Alicia will join in on this, but she's going through a very busy period right now. Nothing bad, so no need to worry, but she's got some extra stuff happening right now that's occupying her time.)

So here's a rough checklist of red flags, organized more or less into units. Keep in mind that even when these things aren't technical errors, they serve as red flags because they often indicate a certain lack of authorial control or writerliness.

Sentence Structure
  • Are the structures repetitive over the representative sample?
  • Are there any participial phrases? (Introductory present participial phrases, in particular, can be associated with ineffective writing.)
  • Are all the sentence subjects a character name or a pronoun?
  • Are there any misplaced modifiers? (Huge red flag.)
  • Are there any dangling modifiers? (This will almost automatically result in rejection.)
  • Is there a lack of prepositional phrases, or are other weaker phrases used in place of prepositional phrases? (Prepositional phrases read more cleanly than others, such as participial phrases.)

Note: The most common sentence structure in the realm of fiction goes:

character name or pronoun --> verb --> maybe some predicative material like a direct object

Shake it up, but don't sacrifice lucidity. Use occasional compounds and move phrases around when you can. Note: moving phrases around is a tricky business and can result in all kinds of structural errors. Learn the right way to do it -- sentence combining techniques will come in handy here -- and never ever lose sight of the Golden Rule of Modifiers. We all know the Golden Rule of Modifiers, right? Modifiers go next to the words they modify. There are plenty of exceptions to that rule, but in general, you're better off following it.


  • Are the main verbs in the sentence verbs of being or appearance? (conjugations of to be, to appear, to seem, to look, etc.)
  • Are the main verbs in the sentence static rather than dynamic?
  • Is the sentence loaded with "verb words" -- words that our minds interpret as verbs even when they're used as some other part of speech? (Gerunds, participles, and verbs, oh my! -- too many verb words confuse a sentence.)
  • Are there any temporal or sequencing errors? (Huge red flag. Watch out for actions that cannot be simultaneous but are written as if they are. "Burned to the ground, the school was rebuilt.")
  • Is the main verb slot filled with a weak verb while strong verbs are shunted to secondary slots? ("After skittering to a halt, she looked to the scoreboard for her final race time." Skittering is much stronger than looked. Try something like, "She skittered to a halt under the scoreboard where her final race time would be posted." Or some other phrasing that puts the stronger verb in the main verb slot.)

I can't overstate the importance of strong, vivid, dynamic verbs ... used sparingly. Think of verbs as solitaire gemstones set beautifully against a sentence. One really gorgeous verb will sparkle. Lots of lesser verbs will look a little gaudy and cluttered.


  • Are the words flat and dull?
  • Are the words overly simplistic?
  • Are the words too academic?
  • Are any ten-dollar words used incorrectly?

This is another tricky area because voice is so dependent on vocabulary. Ideally, you want to aim for the middle -- something vivid and varied enough to be interesting, but not so esoteric as to be unreadable. If the reader can't understand the word, you lose the reader.

Point of View
  • Are there "distancing" phrases? (she thought, he wanted, she believed, etc.)
  • If multiple characters are interacting, can we tell which is the viewpoint character?
  • Is there too much telling and not enough showing? Another way to phrase it: is there too much exposition and not enough scene narrative? (Please! I'm begging you! Stop opening with exposition!)

It's really hard to come up with a simple checklist for point of view problems, even though these are the problems that often separate a ready manuscript from an almost-ready manuscript. Also, in my experience, point of view edits are the hardest and most frustrating for both editor and author, so point of view errors usually make me want to reject and avoid that set of problems.

In general, keep this in mind: point of view is a spectrum ranging from subjective to objective. The preference these days in commercial fiction is for highly subjective points of view. This means you have to narrate from inside a single character's experience as much as possible. If you opt for another point of view, that's okay -- it's even okay to shift degrees of subjectivity/objectivity in some cases. But you have to do it effectively. And I really don't think I can come up with a checklist for all the red flags for all the ways it can be done ineffectively.

Then there's the whole list of case-by-case things I evaluate. For example, if we start with description -- setting the scene -- how quickly does the reader establish the scene and then move into action? How effective is the description? If we're starting with dialogue (one of those unfortunate recent trends), is the dialogue snappy enough to kick off an entire book? Regardless of how we start, do I get some sense of tension or problems to be solved?

I think this is enough to get us started. Checklists are imperfect for a whole lot of reasons, but most of the items on this checklist are problematic enough to deserve being treated as red flags.


Dara Edmondson said...

Great stuff. I'm searching all my manuscripts after I write this;-)

Edittorrent said...

Theresa, so do you like participial phrases? I know they have a use (everything in the language has a use) but I find myself mentally rewriting them as I read them. They seldom seem like the BEST way to star a sentence.

Ditto on the voice in the opening... I cringe at a too-simplistic or too fancy opening... unless somehow the writer conveys that this IS the character's voice, maybe. But that's a point of view issue-- does the passage start in the character voice, and does it stay consistent in the first scene?


Edittorrent said...

They seldom seem like the BEST way to starT a sentence, I mean.