The American Scholar chose what they consider to be the 10 worst opening sentences.
I’ll agree with a couple of them:
It was like so, but wasn’t.
—Richard Powers, Galatea 2.2
It must have been 1963, because the musical of Dombey & Son was running at the Alexandra, and it must have been the autumn, because it was surely some time in October that a performance was seriously delayed because two of the cast had slipped and hurt themselves in B dressing-room corridor, and the reason for that was that the floor appeared to be flooded with something sticky and glutinous.
—Penelope Fitzgerald, At Freddie’s
The first because it’s just freaking annoying. It’s one of those weak openings that makes you want to shake the author and say “what were you thinking?”
The second is just over-wrought and over-full. A good editor would have grabbed this paragraph and given it either some order or some periods. I’m not against long sentences – no matter how much my own writing ends up sounding more like Hemingway than China Meiville. But, I despise sentences that aren’t clear. It can be long and compounded (463 words is the record for sentences I’ve read through.) It just has to be reasonably clear.
But I have another sentence I hate more than any of their choices.
“A squat grey building of only forty-two stories.” – Aldous Huxley, A Brave New World
Let’s begin with the fact that it isn’t even really a sentence. I leaves you dangling like a hero off of a cliff. Secondly, well, that’s a personal one. I was in a class wherein we discussed “a squat grey” for an hour and a half.
AN HOUR AND A HALF PEOPLE. This is what happens to students when you write sentences that aren’t sentences.
And lest you think I am making this up, I have witnesses from that class with whom I still speak. I will rustle them up if I have to.
But, after an hour and a half, I will say that “grey” is a “nasty little four letter word” right up there with “blue,” “love,” “true,” “hero,” and “hate.”
So what has this all been leading up to?
Let’s look at what I consider a great opening: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
Why is this a good opening?
Because immediately I have questions. What is a hobbit? Why does he live in a hole? What sort of hole is it? Is he like a rabbit or something?
Your opening should draw the reader into the story.
I am a sparse writer. My sentences are short, merely because I have an over-reliance on commas, which I attempt to restrain by forcing myself to use smaller sentences. My opening sentences, are thereby also sparse. If you’re writing a high fantasy novel? By all means get a little flowery. I will never cite you as wrong for indulging your voice or your genre. Just make it clear, understandable, and interesting.
I’m not talking about just the first sentences either. But if you haven’t hooked me in the first few pages? I’ll close the book. I read a lot of fiction. I am a dreadful biblioslut. (Def.: n. One who reads multiple books at one time.) But on occasion, there are authors who catch me and I read the whole thing in one sitting. How do they do it? They keep me asking the question, what next.
Let’s try an opening I’m making up strictly for this example.
“Well, that was anticlimactic,” Billy-Jo muttered, pulling angrily on the handcuff attached to her right wrist, as the bomb’s timer clicked down to zero and nothing happened.
This is the sort of opening that makes you ask a lot of questions:
- Who is Billy-Jo?
- Why is she handcuffed to something?
- Why is there a bomb?
- Why did the bomb not go off?
- Oh, Gods, is the bomb going to go off?
- Am I going to hate the author within the first ten pages for killing of a snarky character I thought was the main character?
There is a journal devoted to the idea of first lines. They give you the initial sentence, then you create a short story to attach to it. Maybe that’s something for us to explore in a future episode.
Question time then:
What is your favorite opening? (Could be a scene from a television show, a book, a poem, a movie – anything with a narrative.)