Earlier today I chose four fiction titles at random from my bookshelves, and opened up the first page. Of the four, three began with a single-sentence paragraph. The prologue of the fourth was itself just a single paragraph long, consisting of four sentences.
I then looked at the opening sentences of four of my own short stories, printed in various anthologies. What do you know? Three out of four in terms of one-line openings.
It’s a well-known fact that what we read has a bearing on what we write, but a lot of people seem to underestimate just how much their work is a reflection of other’s. And nor is it a one-way system. We write the way we do because our subconcious has picked up on the styles of our favourite authors after hours and hours of avid reading, but… Have we also chosen these authors because they in turn reflect our own budding style? The reality is a “chicken or egg” situation, where no one can ever really know which came first, and the truth is likely more of a synthetic mixture of both aspects – we write what we like to read, we read what we like to write, and on and on.
Catching the link between your writing and your reading can be vital because it gives you insight into your own voice. We’re always told to try and first find, and then hone, this illusive authorial trait. Seeing that voice reflected in what you read, however, is kind of like looking in the mirror – you can see how other people might view your work. It also allows you to change aspects you dislike, or just try out something new. During the early stage of a writer’s career his voice isn’t fixed, and nor was it ever sitting waiting to be found, already fully-formed. It develops organically over time, and nobody should be afraid of helping it down a particular path, or steering it away from another. I’ve known about my predilection for snappy one-liner openings for some time now, so a while back I made a conscious effort to start stories with some broader description. That certainly wasn’t because I disliked the one-liner style or wanted to change it, I just didn’t want to shoehorn my developing voice into a predictable trend or stunt its development by not trying new things.
Next time you open a book, pay extra attention to matters like sentence structure, bears and paragraph breaks, for a start. Take notes if it helps. Style and voice run through every aspect of storytelling, but physical words-on-page technique is a nice easy way to begin analysis. Think about how other’s style reflects your own, and decide what you like best about it, and what you’d like to change.