Opening Sentences.

And already I'm on post four of five, looking at the opening sentences of my favourite reads of the past twelve months, based on an idea from the beginning of K.M Weiland's book Structuring Your Novel.

A good opening should:

1. Questions – establish tensions to be resolved.

2. Character – engage the reader with the protagonist.

3. Setting – give the reader a sense of place.

4. Declaration – a sweeping, provocative statement.

5. Tone – establishes the style and mood of the writing.

So here's number four!

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

 I'd never read any Cormac McCarthy before. I didn't really know what to expect. And it's a bit more violent than my usual read. But wow! I loved what this guy did with the story. I'll definitely read some more.

I sent one boy to the gas chamber at Huntsville. One and only one. My arrest and my testimony. I went up there and visited with him two or three times. The last time was the day of his execution.

Minor Sentences

McCarthy uses minor sentences ('One and only one.' 'My arrest and testimony.') as alternative to subordinate clauses. The first three sentences could legitimately be written as one. The effect is to create an authentic voice, a slow speaking Southern speaker.

Simple and Compound Sentences

Unlike the other examples we've looked at McCarthy uses no complex sentences at all in this opening. Again this links to character, but it also helps to establish setting, the tight, muscular sentences helping to create a sense of the rugged location. The sentences all begin with the subject followed by the verb creating pace.

Setting

The colloquial grammar 'visited with him' rather than 'visited him' creates an authentic sense of a Southern speaker. The proper noun 'Huntsville' also conveys region.

I really like this opening. It's rough and tough and dangerous. It's unpretentious and powerful. I am pretty sure that I couldn't write like this.







 

Opening Sentences.

So this is the third post of five, looking at the opening sentences of my favourite reads of the past twelve months, based on an idea from the beginning of K.M Weiland's book Structuring Your Novel.

A good opening should:

1. Questions – establish tensions to be resolved.

2. Character – engage the reader with the protagonist.

3. Setting – give the reader a sense of place.

4. Declaration – a sweeping, provocative statement.

5. Tone – establishes the style and mood of the writing.

So here's number three:

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

“I was going to say something,” he said.

“So say it,” she said.

He was quiet, his eyes on the road. In the darkness of the city's outskirts, there was nothing to see except the tail-lights of other cars in the distance, the endless unfurling roll of tarmac, the giant utilitarian fixtures of the motorway.

Subject Pronouns not Proper Nouns

The novel opens with an exchange of direct speech. The gendering of the pronouns establishes that the relationship will be key to the novel. And while this might seem to be a perfect opportunity to name the protagonists, Faber uses the anonymous pronouns 'he' and 'she'. Perhaps he is establishing Peter and Bea as universal 'everypeople'.

Direct Speech

The exchange 'I was going to say something', 'so say it' works as sort of literary joke at the start, mirroring the job of the author / storyteller.

Cumulative Syntax

Like both previous writers Faber includes cumulative syntax (subordinate clauses following the main clause), the adjectives 'endless' and 'giant' show the impressiveness of the road, the marked out journey that Peter and Faber intend to leave.

A funny one this. The opening,  like the book as whole feels metaphorical, hard to pin down. And that's a big reason why I love it (a lot of readers don't if the reviews on Amazon are anything to go by). It is without question one of my favourite books not just of the past twelve months but of ever and all time.







 

Opening Sentences.

So this is my second post about opening sentences. K.M. Weiland looks at opening sentences, making the point that openings need not be memorable, but must be multi-functional. She writes that openings should introduce:

1. Questions – establish tensions to be resolved.

2. Character – engage the reader with the protagonist.

3. Setting – give the reader a sense of place.

4. Declaration – a sweeping, provocative statement.

5. Tone – establishes the style and mood of the writing.

Here's my second choice.

The Peripheral by William Gibson

The Peripheral is my favourite William Gibson book. I like the pace of it and the tightness of the scenes. The opening of Neuromancer is now pretty famous  ('dead channel' and all that), but I really love The Peripheral. Here's the opening.

They didn't think Flynn's brother had PTSD, but that sometimes the haptics glitched him. They said it was like phantom limb, ghosts of the tattoos he'd worn in the war, put there to tell him when to run, when to be still, when to do the badass dance, which direction and what range.

Third Person Collective

Like Bannan's 'Weightless' , also set in an anonymous mid-west location, Gibson uses the third person collective 'they' as the subjects of the sentences. Again, like 'Weightless' the choice creates a sense of claustrophobia, and the verbs 'think' and 'said' demonstrate that it is 'they' and not the individual that rule the setting.

Proper Nouns

Gibson introduces the protagonist, Flynn, indirectly. She is not the subject of either sentence. She isn't even the object. Her brother is. This allows Gibson to introduce the protagonist without is seeming overly direct.

Cumulative Sentence Structure

The second sentence uses a cumulative structure, with the main clause 'They said it was like phantom limb' followed by four subordinate clauses, creating a sense of the building layers of gossip surrounding Flynn's brother, Burton.

***

I always feel that Gibson breaks with convention in that the beginnings of his books often confuse and disorientate as much as they entertain. The supernatural lexis ('phantom', 'ghosts') combine with the connotations of  perception and manipulation of 'haptics'  to create mystery and tension and link to Gibson's trademark themes of social manipulation and alternate realities. Finally, the informal lexis ('badass') helps to create a sense of Flynn as a dynamic, blue collar protagonist.

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Opening Sentences.

In her book 'Structuring Your Novel', K.M Weiland looks at the opening sentences of five her favourite books that she had read in the past twelve months. She goes on to talk about five principles of opening sentences:

1. Questions – establish tensions to be resolved.

2. Character – engage the reader with the protagonist.

3. Setting – give the reader a sense of place.

4. Declaration – a sweeping, provocative statement.

5. Tone – establishes the style and mood of the writing.

I decided to do the same

Over the next five days, I'll look at one of my favourite books that I have read in the past twelve months. So let's get on.

'Weightless' by Sarah Bannan

 

I absolutely loved this novel of high-school peer pressure, and teenage cyber-bullying. Sarah Bannan totally hooked me with this page-turning debut. And these are the opening sentences.

***

They came out in groups of three, wearing matching shorts and t-shirts, their hair tied back with orange and black ribbons. Their eyes were wide and they yelled and clapped and turned precisely, rehearsed.

Third Person Collective

Use of the third person collective ('they' and 'their') creates the immediate impression of powerful and anonymous forces that will come to work on the protagonist, Carolyn. It also creates a sense of the psychological setting of the teenage psyche.

Cumulative Syntax

Both sentences are cumulative (main clause first with subordinates following). The first sentence is clearest example, and in it we see the main clause ('They came out in groups of three') focusing our attention clearly on the anonymous 'them', the following clauses add details about the appearance of the girls, adding details in the way that an observer would notice them. The precise and tightness of the girls' appearance suggests a uniform and creates tension.

Co-ordinate Clauses

The second sentence has a striking three co-ordinating conjunctions ('and') the stacked observations skillfully turn the attractive exuberance of the girls into something threatening. The end of the sentence has a clipped asyndetic adjective, 'rehearsed'. Bannan exploits end-focus here to build the tension by undercutting the spontaneous descriptions of the girls with the implication that their actions are anything but.

This is a striking opening, partly because the protagonist is left out, but the collective antagonist creates menace, and the tight precision of the description mirrors the hierarchical tension of teenage social groups







 

bestselling, ebook, amazon
This week's best selling ebooks.

First sentence, first page, first scene's closing hook, first impressions count. They may not govern how our stories or novels or poems are judged overall, but they must surely influence the reader's decision to download, to read, to buy our work so that we can show them what a great story we have to tell.

To that end I decided to look at the top three sellers on the Amazon.com ebook fiction chart and see how the writers used language in their opening pages to hook their readers.

The books here were the top three on the 24th of August, 2016. They were:

1)'The Things We Wish Were True' by Marybeth Mayhew Whalen

2)'Interference' by Amélie Antoine, Maren Baudet-Lackner (Translator)

3)'Everything We Keep: A Novel' by Kerry Lonsdale

The first two titles are 'Kindle First' titles. Some people might argue that this means that they are not true bestsellers, but I would argue that in the current context it highlights the importance of impressing the Amazon Editors as well as the broader reading public.

Novel openings

Put simply, the purpose of an opening is to engage the audience into the story and its protagonists as quickly and as deeply as possible. It needs to establish a distinct and credible narrative voice and to provide exposition efficiently, and on top of all that, it should hint at the controlling idea and at the deeper themes of the text as a whole. Oh yeah - and then, after all this i done it needs to excite the readers curiosity, to energise and to make us emote, emote, emote - 'Bloody Hell, Harry!'

Chapter Headings

All three of this weeks best sellers begin with temporal and / or geographical reference. This creates the effect of an 'establishing shot' in the style of film or TV drama or documentary. The fashion for these kinds of openings perhaps reflect the increasing cross media literacy of modern audiences.

In terms of function these choices have benefits for the author. The use of precise reference to time and place gives an immediate sense of credibility and helps the reader to cross the boundary of believability that so many people feel about fiction.

Secondly, it saves the author the effort of exposition as including exposition of time and place can be cumbersome, and awkward. By using headings, bestselling authors are able to dive straight into the drama of the scene.

The Things We Wish Were True and Interference also use the narrator's name to immediately precede the main body of the prose. This allows the reader to feel that they know the character to some degree before the narrative begins. In Everything We Keep, Lonsdale uses direct speech: “'Here Aimee.' Mom gave me a clean one” to achieve the same effect. Perhaps this is because her audience is more plot focused.

Proper Nouns

Proper nouns establish key characters quickly.
Proper nouns establish key characters quickly.

All three texts have female protagonists, and focus the use of proper nouns on a male character. As readers we are focussed quickly on the theme of romantic love. The names of the characters imply outsiders ('Cailey and Cutter' in The Things We Wish Were True), link with faith (Gabriel in Interference) or establish the 'normality' of the characters (Aimee and James in Everything We Keep). In terms of proper nouns The Things We Wish Were True establishes its literary credentials through an early reference to 'Charlotte's Web'.

Starting Sentences with Co-ordinating Conjunctions

With all three texts using first person narrators we expect to feel as if we are being spoken to. And in so many texts, we have become used to sentences beginning with 'And' and 'But'. All three writers use this method of imitating the cadences of speech to create a sense of intimacy between narrator and reader.

The Things We Wish Were True 'But no one wanted to hear that spider's message'

Interference 'But I know he'll be angry this time.'

Everything We Keep 'But instead of walking down the aisle towards my best friend, my first and only love, I was at his funeral.'

Bicolons and Tricolons

'We will fight them on the beaches...' Politicians like Churchill exploit rhetorical techniques.
'We will fight them on the beaches...' Politicians like Churchill exploit rhetorical techniques.

Bicolons and tricolons are terms that mean repeated grammatical structures. They are a feature of rhetoric favoured by politicians and advertisers. All three novelists use this feature.

When I read a novel, I like to enjoy the language; I like to feel that I am in safe hands, that my novelist knows what they're doing. Using rhetorical techniques is attractive to us and helps us to emote.

The Things We Wish Were True 'His body was tense, his inner self trying to get over to those boys even as his arms and legs stayed still.'

Interference 'I love how he makes me feel about myself, and I love knowing that he's nothing without me.'

Everything We Keep 'Same church. Same flowers. Wrong wedding'

Sentence Structures

The texts use sentence structures to reflect their themes and protagonists.

Mayhew Whalen's writing is the most heavily textured of the three texts. She combines the use of sophisticated sentence structures with colloquialisms ('smack-dab' 'superheroes') to create Cailey as a protagonist who is an outsider but who is also clearly an intelligent young woman. It includes a great cumulative sentence too that adds and adds and adds to the theme of the outsider.

The Things We Wish Were True 'Cutter and I stood, the two of us, off to the side, apart from the crowd.'

Amelie Antoine's Interference is the most clearly stylised of the three books. She uses short sentences most of which start with subject pronouns to create a staccato effect, creating a powerful impression of a detached and possibly psychopathic speaker.

Interference 'I feel like I'm in the here and now.'

Though the most traditional in terms writing style, Lonsdale does make use of minor sentences (or fragments to MS Office users). She does this to represent the emotional difficulty that Aimee has when thinking about her deceased love, James.

Everything We Keep 'The little boy I imagined standing between James and me, his small hands linked with ours.'

Conclusions

As you would expect – these three book openings are different! That said it is interesting that all three are using female protagonists and first person narrators and that all three use similar chapter headers.

My favourite sentence: 'Maybe I should be using the past tense' (Interference).