Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Is Your Second Line as Good as Your First? Making the Most of Your Paragraphs

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

We all know the importance of a great first line. Not just the first line of your novel, but the first line of every chapter and even every scene. If you really want to go crazy, the first line of every paragraph. That’s a lot of pressure for those poor guys.

But what about second lines?

They have it easy. No one pays a lot of attention to them. Readers are already so enamored by that awesome first line, they gloss right over the second, right?

Not really.

Great lines hook. To continue the fishing metaphor, the second line is the strike. The first line intrigues, and the second line captures. The rest of the paragraph is the struggle to land that fish. Get the fish in the boat and it’s yours.

Take a look at basic paragraph structure. An opening line that sets up a topic (just like in high school), then a variety of sentences that flesh out that idea, then a closing line that transitions into the next paragraph. Even if you have one-line dialog, it still has the same basic principle. Something is said and transitions into the next line of dialog. Conversations are back and forth.

No matter where your first line occurs, (book, chapter or paragraph) the second line works as the bridge to get your reader to the transition line and onto the next paragraph.

Have you ever skimmed through a scene? What did you do? If you’re like me, you read the first line, maybe the second if that line grabs you, and then you’re on to the next paragraph. If the second line also grabs me, I keep reading. If it doesn’t offer any reason to finish the paragraph, I don’t. I keep skimming until I get to a reason to dig into the story again.

Let’s look at an example from The Shifter:

Stealing eggs is a lot harder than stealing the whole chicken. The hook line. This is a para about stealing eggs. The hook, that makes you ask “why?” With chickens, you just grab a hen, stuff her in a sack and make your escape. This is the strike. You’re already intrigued, and this further sets up a question as to why the eggs are different. Why can’t you just grab the eggs and run? But for eggs, you have to stick your hand under a sleeping chicken. Now you’re into the information section of the paragraph. How this egg stealing thing works. You have to deal with sleepy chickens. Chickens don’t like this. A problem found in stealing eggs in this fashion They wake all spooked and start pecking holes in your arm, or your face, if it’s close. A downside to stealing eggs and a possible problem to occur And they squawk something terrible. The transition line that gets you from why stealing eggs is harder to how to overcome this problem. Now that you know A) stealing eggs is harder, B) exactly why it’s harder, and C) what can go wrong, you’re ready to hear how you steal eggs out from under sleeping chickens.

The trick is to wake the chicken first, then go for the eggs. The solution and the answer to why sealing eggs is harder. I’m embarrassed to say how long it took me to figure this out. Both a second line and a transition line. It’s funny (one way to hook readers) and it moves the reader into the actual egg theft already in progress in the next paragraph.

You don’t have to analyze every paragraph in your story (that would be insane) but it’s a helpful exercise to look at a few and see what your sentences are doing for you. Are your first lines hooking? Even if it’s small, are they offering something that says “this paragraph is worth reading?” What about the second line? Is it capitalizing on the interest garnered by the first line? Does the rest of the paragraph fulfill the promise of those two lines? And finally, does it end with a line that moves you to the next paragraph?

Looking at your first and second lines is also a handy diagnostic tool for scenes that feel slow or static or just plain off for some reason. You may have lost narrative focus and your prose feels aimless. Take a look at the second lines and see if they’re picking up where the opening line left off. Check those last lines to see if they’re transitioning into the next paragraph or idea. No matter what the paragraph is about, you want it to feel as if it’s going somewhere.

Places You Want to Check
Some paragraphs carry more weight than others.
  • The first paragraph of a chapter
  • The first paragraph after a scene break
  • The final paragraph of a chapter
  • The final paragraph of a scene break
These are all good spots to take a closer look at how your second line supports your first, and how that last line supports the next first line. Why? Because these are the paragraphs that entice a reader to start reading, or keep them reading once they are.

First lines matter, but don’t think the importance ends there. Getting someone’s attention won’t mean much if you can’t keep that attention.

What’s the second line of your novel? Did you spend as much time on it as the first? 

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

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Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
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Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Thanks for mentioning this. I hadn't thought about second sentences so much. Not surprised you have though. You've got some great places to check the paragraphs. I'll be reading my manuscript again soon for a revision and will check out those sentences too. Thanks.

  2. Thank you! I'll be payting greater attention to my second lines from now on. Love the hook/strike analogy!

  3. Sentences have to work together. They must up to, or fall down from, each other. Not every sentence must pack the same punch, after all, a reader would get worn out, but they must all be on the same journey together.

  4. Most welcome! Sometime I think writers (myself included) get caught up in either the big picture (and forget the details) or the minutia (and forget the bigger story), and that makes it tough to shift gears and spot trouble spots. Anything that reminds me to change focus and look at the whole story is a win for me ;)

  5. Janice, thanks for sharing this. I certainly know the importance of every sentence in a paragraph--even teach the concept in my university English, Composition and creative writing classes. But this post made me realize I need to practice this to the point it is intuitive in my writing.

  6. Most welcome Sharon. Sometimes just focusing on a detail helps you understand why you do something. I've found it really helpful with my own writing. So much of what we do is indeed intuitive. It just feels right, but we don't always know *why*.

  7. Janice, you are amazing. Even for the most specific quandaries, you have an answer. I was stuck on my second sentence and thought to go to your site and search "first sentence" and lo - you actually have an article on second sentences! I'm blown away. Thank you.
    I put a link to you on my new blog. Hope you don't mind.

  8. Stacy, don't mind at all, thanks. I'm thrilled I had the right post at the right time for you. Always makes my day when I hear this. :)