Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Baby Steps of Writing #4: Opening with a Line in the Sand

Starting a novel can be intimidating. Finishing even more so. It is my hope that this series will help other soon-to-be or wanna-be writers find a place to begin a novel and better yet, empower them to finish. Here you will find all the advice I wish someone would have given me when I first started writing fiction.
Oh, man! I’ve been gone from my blog for so long. I’m sorry! Life gets crazy for us all and mine is no exception. But continuing on with my Baby Steps of Writing, I’m discussing elements of openings.
Openings must set the mood, introduce a dynamic character, and compel the reader forward with tension. Most of all, the opening of a book should force the reader to care. Emotional investment is the reason to keep reading, to buy the book, to tell your friends they just have to read this one. It can also be called the so-what of the story.
My favorite way to do this (and the technique I strongly recommend using) is The Line in the Sand
The line in the sand is when we as writers state the book’s purpose which will be established through out the tale. This is either an idea that will be overturned or the driving force where the character’s actions are fostered. A line in the sand is different from the theme because the line is a belief statement. It can be the theme, but more like the expectation we try to set for the reader in a flashing neon sign. Often it carries an undertone just like a theme would, though. We smell and taste trouble. We flat-out tell the reader what they’ve gotten themselves into and then set up the rest of the story to either refute or reinforce the statement we’ve made.

Here’s an example of an opening line from The Help: “Taking care of white babies, that’s what I do, along with all the cooking and the cleaning. I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime.” Abileen is going to decide if taking care of white ladies’ households is what she can or will continue to do once things get out of hand.
The famous lines from Pride and Prejudice: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” We automatically ask, “Is this true in Regency England?” And the characters are going to prove or disprove this statement about single, wealthy men.

Moby Dick: “Call me Ishmael.” That name has so much baggage! We automatically know the character likely will too. In The Bible, Ishmael was cast out of his father’s landholdings once the favored son, Isaac, was born. Ishmael is telling us he is a castaway, a nomad, and we can safely bet he sees himself as second best. He might even have a cheeky chip on his shoulder.

Here’s one from my own work in progress: Right now I have only to save myself.” The main character is going to have to decide if that is true, if she can live with herself by only saving her own skin and no one else’s.

Anyway, that is the Line in the Sand. What do you think?
Could you work one into your own story?
Do you want to?
So what are everyone’s plans for the holidays? I’m hoping mine will be quiet enough to let me work on my blog, my writing, and my Super-Secret Project. *grins*

Have a wonderful holiday season, my friends!


  1. I'm going to have to try this out! I start writing this weekend and I have a character in mind and knowing this one line about her would really spark my story. Thanks so much!

  2. Ooooo. A super secret project. That sounds fun! I never really thought about the line in the sand like that, but that's great advice. I hope you have a terrific Christmas!

  3. I've heard of lines in the sand before, but I'd forgotten. That's such great advice-- a great way to set up an interesting story!

    Welcome back, Jackee!

  4. Thanks for the line in the sand method of starting a story! It certainly focuses that ever important first sentence!

    I hope to have a peaceful christmas too!! Yay!

    Take care

  5. I like this! I'm going to have to see if I have a line in the sand, or where I can add one in! :)

    Super secret project has me wondering! :)

  6. Another project? You're always so ambitious - good luck with it!

    I love this post, and will definitely look at my own opening with this in mind. And I can't believe it, but I never made the connection between the Ishmael in Moby Dick and in the Bible before you pointed it out - I can't believe that!

  7. Writing a line in sand. That's an interesting idea. I'm going to look back and see if I can have my protagonist be so sure right at the beginning.

    Good luck squeezing in writing and blogging time. Happy New Year!

  8. What is your super secret writing project? Shouldn't I know about it???

    Great post! I will definitely think about the line in the sand the next time I sit down with my manuscript.

    Have a wonderful peace filled Christmas.

  9. I haven't heard of Lines in the Sand technique before--I'll have to think about it in relation to my own novel.

    Great examples.

    Good luck with your writing, blogging, and this secret project of yours. :)

  10. This post has me thinking about one of my projects that is still just a bunch of notes and needs a line in the sand. Thank you!

    Our family is having a quiet holiday break at home, and that's quite nice. Good luck with your super-secret project! :) I hope you have a very happy holiday!

  11. I've been reading a lot of children's books lately and find the line in the sand idea works well for books of all levels. :)

  12. hi miss jackee! you give the best writing advice. i like how you give samples. that a big help for me. yikes! super secret writing project???? how bout a hint. :) i cant wait to know what it is.
    ...hugs from lenny

  13. I'm going to start asking myself if I'm opening with a line in the sand. Interesting idea, and thanks for the examples.

    Happy holidays, Jackee.

  14. At first I was flummoxed about the line in sand, and then I understood as I read your examples and I went ohhh yes now I know! Slow on the uptake aren't I!

    Hope your Christmas was filled with laughter and joy Jackee, and wishing you and yours a 2012 filled with dreams come true!

  15. Stopping by to wish you a happy new year. Happy New Year, Jackee!

  16. I like this 'line in the sand' idea a lot. Thanks for sharing and for such vivid examples. We've just returned from Louisiana for the holidays - hope you also had a lovely Christmas and, from our house to yours, Happy New Year!

    And good luck with your project!