Wednesday, January 18, 2012


A significant key to an effective beginning, either of a story, a novel, or a daily work session, is a sentence so provocative and ambitious in its reach that it invites the second sentence before there is time to think about it.  Make no mistake; some time is put into crafting that opening sentence, that “Call me Ishmael” sentence.  In comparison, the second sentence arrives as if from nowhere or, rather, from the energy and audacity of the first.

Much is made of opening sentences.  There are, in fact, books of these opening sentences, two in particular compiled by chums of yours, Barnaby Conrad and Donald Newlove.  To your awareness, there are no such books of second sentences or, of growing importance, the third and fourth sentences, those workhorses who pull the wagon of story along in relative anonymity.

A reader who comes upon an intriguing first sentence could be put off by a second sentence of no distinction, followed by a third of even more lackluster aura.  You must not, and do not underestimate the importance of a proper opening sentence.  You have in fact on occasion put the greater part of a work session into discovering an effective first sentence.

This build-up is for a purpose.  As you were writing these sentences, a metaphoric light bulb went off in your head.  Fond as you are of the no-nonsense “Call me Ishmael” type of sentence, you are more fond yet of a longer, more convoluted sentence, one constructed on the order of freight trains running through segments of the city where their presence is an occasion for traffic in all directions to be brought to a halt.

These trains mean business.  Most of them are freight trains, making them an immediate metaphor.  As freight trains freight cargo, sentences, in particular first, second, and third sentences, freight large cargos of dramatic information, drawing them past a given point such as a reader who wants to get at the vital details of the story in order to discover what happened.

There is no accident or mere whim connected to your preferences here.  Long sentences have the ability to freight story information, which in turn intrigues the reader, who then finds himself needful of turning the pages to secure additional information.

The author has the advantage of knowing the reader wants an intriguing story.  Many authors have a few tricks up their sleeves, not the least of which is maneuvering the protagonist into a tight spot, then beginning a fresh chapter from the point of another character.  The shrewd author can also contrive more complications, causing the reader to foreswear other intentions in order to stay on, reading for another chapter or two.

Sometimes the attendant device is referred to as a cliffhanger, after the novel by Thomas Hardy in which a character literally hung from the edges of a porous cliff on the west central coast of England.

An attractive, often forgotten combination of opening lines comes from an author of unparalleled significance and reputation:


No answer.

 No answer.
 "What's gone with that boy, I wonder? You TOM!"
  No answer.
There is a well-built opening, a foreshadowing of the opening to come when the author, writing from the point of his eponymous Huckleberry Finn, has him in direct address to the reader:  “You don’t know about me without you have read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mr. Mark Twain, but that ain’t no matter.”

This is a serious opening sentence, one you have been haunted by for all these years since you first heard it, working on opening sentences of that very sort in hopes of latching on to the tail of a comet that is story.  Mr.Mark Twain could do it both ways, the simple, straightforward opening so well deployed that after a mere three words, we are well into being “in” to stay, and the longer, more relaxed, conversational approach that enchants us before we realize it.

Poor wretch that you are, you have come to realize why longer opening sentences so intrigue you.  This is because you have the opportunity then to tease the reader along with cadence, with language.  Long sentences in narrative are like arpeggios in music, where the notes in a cord are sounded beyond simultaneous; they are played individually in ways that suggest—important word there, suggest—the full-bodied cord but also attenuate the notes and, thus, the overall effect.  What you cannot accomplish with dramatic material, you fake with length, cadence, and—if you are lucky—a suggested comparison of seemingly incompatible concepts.

It is jolly fun to come by these kinds of opening lines in the first draft or so, although it is no secret that such “luck” is the result of ten or twelve differing versions of the same sentences, using different word order, different sentence order, perhaps slipping in an outrageous comparison or a metaphor or a simile or anomaly.

When you are off on a long sentence spree, you are no longer thinking individual words; you are sending scouts ahead in search of appropriate comparisons, metaphor, simile, perhaps ironic comparison.

This last, ironic comparison, among other things is the suggestion that a particular tope is a metaphor, when in fact it is no such thing.  It may be something else, but it is no metaphor.  It is a line that has discovered a life of its own, then growing audacious, it suggests second and third sentences that take the reader on an epic ride from predictability and the predictable development to a surprise, based on the sudden addition of materials no one, least of all you, recognize as being relevant to the story.

No comments: