1. Cailinfios
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    Cailinfios Member

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    Need help with my first line!

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by Cailinfios, Jan 22, 2014.

    Hi everyone,
    well a few days ago I finished my 12,800 word novelette. However I have a problem. This is the first line of my book:

    I’m burning waffles when they discover the body.

    After that first line my MC (she's a homicide detective) answers her ringing phone, where her work partner tells her they found a body.
    The problem is probably pretty obvious. Since the story is written in present tense, the MC wouldn't know they had the discovered the body until AFTER she answered the phone-call.
    I don't want to change to past tense, but I can't think of any other way to fix this. I could change the line to "I'm burning waffles when my phone rings" but I just don't feel it has the same 'hook'.....

    help??
     
  2. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Works just fine in present tense. The use of present tense doesn't imply the events are occurring at the exact moment the reader is reading them. They're still set down in written form, after all. If you want to leave it that way, I don't think you'll have a problem (yeah, maybe a few people in a writing forum won't like it, but the average reader is going to be just fine with it).
     
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  3. Wowzie
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    Wowzie Member

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    I think it's perfectly OK for a present-tense narrator to start the story with background before going into the present tense. She wouldn't, I imagine, start narrating a story until she was aware it was going on.
     
  4. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Is Waffles a character in the story?
    :)
     
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  5. Jack Asher
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    Jack Asher Wildly experimental Contributor

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    I would say go for it, but make it a stylistic choice. Don't just have one instance where the MC is aware of thing they couldn't have seen or know. Make it a constant writing tool.

    Have your MC mention things that they didn't see, or failed to notice. Foreshadow in the first person present. Mention character traits that couldn't be know, like , "She looks attractive but I won't find out she's a bitch until later."

    Blown out of proportion like this you can make a great stylistic choice and stand out from the crowd, and people will forgive you for it as long as you can use it to your advantage.
     
  6. Cailinfios
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    Cailinfios Member

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    haha, no, she's just burning her breakfast xD

    Thanks for all the help, guys!
     
  7. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    You tell us she's burning waffles in present tense, then give us information she would only know in past tense.

    "I’m burning waffles when they discover the body."
    My personal preference is to go with burning waffles when the phone rings.
     
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  8. Nadine
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    Nadine New Member

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    I like what you've got and I agree that your line may not have the same hook if you changed it? Without knowing how you direct the story after this, you could give more detail as to how the MC knows they discovered the body? Give details of the call?
     
  9. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    How about: "I was burning waffles when they discovered the body." That would take care of the tense problem, and also the 'how does she know this already' anomaly, because the story is being told in past tense.

    I think 'when the phone rang' would work as well, but it's not such a startling opening hook. However, it's short—and if the next sentence delivers the whammy of the body's discovery, the telephone opener won't be detrimental.
     
  10. Cailinfios
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    Cailinfios Member

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    This is the opening:

    I’m burning waffles when they discover the body.
    My mobile is ringing. I grab it with floury fingers and squash it between my cheek and shoulder.
    “This is Siena.”
    It’s Robin Wright, my work partner. “Siena. We found another body.”
    “Let me guess. The Eliminator?”
    He sighs. “Yeah.”
    “I’ll be there in a sec.” I wipe my hands on my apron while Robin reads me the address.

    after that she walks to the murder scene and investigates the body and stuff.

    I really don't want to change to past tense, for several reasons
     
  11. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    it still makes no sense to me that she could know when they discovered the body, or that the waffles could be burning then, since the discovery couldn't have been made at the moment when the partner calls her, but would have to have been a few to many minutes before he called... so, since she's burning the waffles when the phone rings, she couldn't have been doing so when the body was actually discovered, could she?...
     
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  12. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    She doesn't have to know. It's merely a stylistic device. There's a lot of published fiction that uses such devices. Some readers may have a problem with it, but I don't think that many will. I think this is particularly true of readers who aren't also writers. We tend to get hung up on stuff like this that most readers wouldn't give too thoughts about.

    Still, its an artifice, and such things are used in fiction. I don't have a problem with it, personally. She doesn't need to know they discovered the waffles at the time the phone rings. The narrative still works (for me anyway), and I've read plenty of books where the narrative sets out information that the character hasn't yet discovered.

    It comes down to a stylistics preference, and people will differ on whether they like it or not.
     
  13. PBrady
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    PBrady Active Member

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    Used in moderation using the future tense is fine. I would personally refrain from using it too much unless you are aiming to achieve a noir feel where the MC is sharing a knowing internal commentary with thhe reader.
     
  14. Lewdog
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    Lewdog Come ova here and give me kisses! Supporter Contributor

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    I always have trouble with the first line of a piece too. It's like the first impression you get when you meet someone, and it sticks in your head forever. With readers it might be the difference on whether they continue to read your work. My only suggestion is just start writing, and hopefully you can go back after writing and from what you have written you might have an easier time finding just the right words to say in the beginning.
     
  15. Cailinfios
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    Cailinfios Member

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    I've already finished the whole story, so currently I am working on the "just go back to fix it" part ;)
     
  16. Jack Asher
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    Jack Asher Wildly experimental Contributor

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    Pretend that your MC is telling the story to someone, but they choose to tell it in the first person. Keep all the future knowledge and add to it.
     
  17. Cailinfios
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    Cailinfios Member

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    I like that idea. I know a lot of people who tell stories in present tense.
     
  18. Nadine
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    Nadine New Member

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    Obviously I'm no expert but I think this would work/get round the problem.
     
  19. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Doesn't make any sense to me - it'll have to be "I was burning waffles when they discovered the body" and then switch back into present tense. While of course she could've been burning waffles when the body was found, she couldn't have known that. I don't agree that it's a stylistic choice - it made me frown enough that I questioned your grammar skills, and that's not a terrific first impression whether you're self-pubbing or trad-pubbing (esp not trad-pubbing as agents would be more critical than the average reader you get).

    The truth is, if you have to ask - which you did - you should probably change it.

    Btw, what do you mean she was "burning" waffles? Is it American English? (I'm from England) It sounds weird to me, like she's well, turning the waffles to char rather than just plain old making them.

    I wouldn't worry about the changed tense making it a less interesting hook. The truth is, it's not an interesting hook to begin with (sorry to say - it's true at least for me). It's an ordinary opening sentence that is good enough to pull me to the second sentence, but by no means is it an interesting first sentence. I don't say this to discourage you, because I do not believe all first sentences must be hooking, nor that every novel lends itself to an amazing opening. I'm saying this because you seem worried that the hook would be worse in the past sentence or else with the altered "I'm burning waffles when the phone rings" and I'm just saying - whichever way you change it, it is still ordinary. It is already a good enough sentence to pull the reader to the second sentence, which at this point is all that's important - your line has served its primary purpose - so don't worry so much about it.

    The truth is, suspicious grammar will have the ability to turn more readers off than a mundane sentence - in fact, it is usually the mundane, simple lines that gets the reader to the second sentence. I'd much rather start with "It was a dark and stormy night" than a sentence whose grammar I'm unsure about - because while the dark and stormy night is cliche, I'm not questioning the writer's fundamental basics in writing, and besides sometimes cliches are enjoyable. With suspicious grammar, I would be, and I would not torture myself with ploughing through a book where the writer potentially did not have a firm grasp of grammar.

    Last thing: your snippet of dialogue was a little disorientating. I thought Siena was the person on the other side of the phone, so when I read "It is Robin Wright" I got terribly confused. I'd encourage you to ask other readers if they had the same confusion, it could be just me. How could she know it was Robin before he even started speaking? So I naturally assume "It is Robin Wright" was referring to the speech immediately before - which is when the names completely clashed.

    But it would be easily resolved if you just put "This is Siena" in the same paragraph as when she grabs the phone.

    I'd also question if anyone would really answer the phone with the full sentence "This is X". I certainly never do. Do you? The most natural for me would be if she just grabs the phone and says, "Siena" or "Siena speaking" etc. ("Siena speaking" would also eliminate the person confusion for me)
     
    Last edited: Jan 24, 2014
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  20. Cailinfios
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    Cailinfios Member

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    You give a lot of interesting points. I'll do my best to answer every one of them.

    1. I don't want to change to past tense. One of the reasons I chose present tense was because it makes it feel more... like its happening now. More like theres a threat to the main character - that she could die at any moment. The thing with first person past tense stories is they're always written after the story, so a reader can be like "She won't die, because if she were dead, how would she have been able to write this?" I don't know if that makes sense. Another big reason is that later in the story, Siena is having a dream. There are sentences like this one:

    I’m very cold. It’s dark. There are tiny stars all around me. Somebody is carrying me.

    If i were to change it to past tense, it would be:

    I was cold. It was dark. There were tiny stars all around me. Somebody was carrying me.

    And that just doesn't seem to... work in my mind.

    2. I originally had "This is Siena," on the same line where she answered the phone, but my writing mentor told me that was grammatically incorrect and I needed to move it to the next line. Personally I prefer it on the same line. (Its less confusing, as you pointed out).

    3. There are a lot of phone calls in my story, and I've striven to avoid having each character answer the phone in the same way. I have "This is Siena," as the main characters way of answering the phone. There's also "Yo, it's Lecard," "Adam Weeks speaking" and "Hi there, Meredith on the phone."

    4. The burning waffles is supposed to point to the fact that Siena is a terrible food. She forgets about food on the stove, makes the heat too high, uses wrong measurements, etc. I do know what you mean by it sounding like it deliberate though....

    Eh, maybe in conclusion i'm being to picky. Perhaps I should just change it to "I'm burning waffles when the phone rings."
     
  21. Jack Asher
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    Jack Asher Wildly experimental Contributor

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    You shouldn't, it's terrible.
     
  22. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    changing it to 'when the phone rings' will solve the timing problem...

    and go ahead and put the phone answering dialog back in the same paragraph where you describe her answering it, if you like and if it's less confusing there...

    jack... why do you think that would be 'terrible'?... though i could agree that 'my waffles are burning, when the phone rings' might make it clear that she wasn't burning them on purpose...

    mckk... i'm glad at least one other person here could see that line as being a problem... thanks for explaining the 'why' so well and in such helpful detail...
     
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  23. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Aside from the fact that I don't think that present tense makes me feel like I'm "there" - I won't argue about it, because your choice is your choice - doesn't the fact that you reveal in that first sentence that another body was discovered render most of the ensuing dialogue anticlimactic? OTOH, the ringing phone and the conversation immediately following are fine, in my book (and, yes, "My waffles are burning" is preferable).
     
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  24. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Doesn't have anything to do with grammar. You may have a more limited threshold for what you'll accept as a reader, but that's basically a preference issue and not one of grammar.
     
  25. VM80
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    VM80 Contributing Member Contributor

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    I was taught the exact opposite; I think it makes it easier to follow.

    Oh, and for the opening line - I actually rather like it.
     

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