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.
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.
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.