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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.

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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.

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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