There’s nothing more important, or difficult, than crafting a novel’s first sentence. Except perhaps for the sentence that follows. Charles Dickens, however, often made it look easy. Consider Dickens’ classic start to A Tale of Two Cities…
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Life, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way-in short, the period was so far the like present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.Charles dickens, A tale of two cities
Despite its being 118 words in length, a single sentence whose entire sense is passive (the verb was appears 11 times), it is moving, weighty, poetic… Though, at first glance, it’s much too wordy and, clearly, nothing “happens,” it’s comprised mostly of nouns and verbs, a good thing, and relatively free of cumbersome modifiers.
Compare Dickens’ masterpiece to perhaps the most ridiculed opening lines in literary history, author Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s beginning to Paul Clifford:
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford
Dark, stormy, occasional, violent, fiercely, scanty… A long and tedious weather report during which nothing happens. Are you curious? Would you like to read on? No? Me either.
Let’s look at one more example. Favorites, of course, are matters of personal choice and require no justification. As powerful as is Dickens’ opening to A Tale of Two Cities, my all-time favorite story opening is William Saroyan’s start to his wonderful short story, The Summer of the Beautiful White Horse …
One day back there in the good old days when I was nine and the world was full of every imaginable kind of magnificence, and life was still a delightful and mysterious dream, my cousin Mourad, who was considered crazy by everybody who knew him except me, came to my house at four in the morning and woke me up by tapping on the window of my room.
Aram, he said.
I jumped out of bed and looked out the window.
I couldn’t believe what I saw.
It wasn’t morning yet, but it was summer and with day-break not many minutes around the corner it was light enough for me to know I wasn’t dreaming.
My cousin Mourad was sitting on a beautiful white horse.William Saroyan, the summer of the beautiful white horse
“If there is another single page of prose that better evokes the wonder and mystery of childhood,” wrote Saroyan’s son, Aram, about the above. “I would like to know about it.”
Now, unfortunately, I must do as promised and begin turning our attention to my stuff. As I work on a novel, I rarely delete anything. Instead, I archive every version as the writing progresses. I rarely look back at them but, now and then, when I find myself in need of recovering from a prose disaster, I retreat to a former version. Thanks to this long-time practice, I’ll be able to reproduce in this blog, accompanied by comments, the slow, sometimes radical, sometimes painful evolution of Jeremiah’s Last Call.
I’ll begin with the opening to the first chapter—the most important opening of all—in my next post on this topic. But before diving in, here is the finished novel’s opening paragraph…
Just before dawn each day, not far from what was once the land of Goshen, Baruch ben Neriah, the prophet Jeremiah’s lifelong friend and trusted scribe, would often waken sighing. When one is held captive few things change, yet Baruch never failed to look past his problems and whisper praises to the Lord. “I thank you, living and eternal King,” he began each day with deep conviction, though he was an exile with no country and, most would say, no hope.
With it, I believe I’ve managed to accomplish the following:
- …name the novel’s principal character and his relationship to Jeremiah.
- …tease the reader with a biblical-historical reference to Goshen.
- …establish that the once renowned scribe, Baruch ben Neriah, has become a captive.
- …point out that Baruch, though his predicament has not yet fully been disclosed, has held on to his faith. And Faith, of course, seems to me to be a required theme of biblical historical fiction.
An opening is the product of many tradeoffs. Author Stephen King has claimed to routinely spend months, even years in getting them just right. I believe him; my above opening to Jeremiah’s Last Call evolved over two years (as you shall see in detail if you continue to read this blog). All writers are forced to identify and prioritize the most important and compelling elements of their stories, include them in their openings and reveal the rest as the story unfolds.
Working this out economically, compellingly and rationally can be agonizing. After two years of frowning, much necessarily remained unspecified in the novel’s first paragraph. After reading my final choice for the most important lines in the novel, the reader has not yet learned its where, when and why! To compensate for their absence, I preceded the opening text by this prologue…
On the day Jerusalem fell to Babylon, the prophet Jeremiah’s lifelong scribe Baruch ben Neriah could not speak nor easily swallow, so parched was he after eighteen months of drought and siege. But, still able to hear, he learned that, after Babylon’s brutal victory over Judah, her king had issued these orders to the captain of his guard…
“Take Jeremiah and look after him. Do nothing harmful to him, but rather deal with him exactly as he tells you.”
…thus Nebuchadnezzar and pagan Babylon had better-honored Israel’s mighty prophet than had the prophet’s own kin. Yet Jeremiah chose to remain with his people as Babylon’s prisoner.
Years later, while in Egypt, Baruch tended to his mentor’s care, supposing their work to be done. But God had not yet finished with his servant.
Does the strategy work? Will the reader buy in? We’ll see. In the next post to this category, we’ll begin dissecting the novel’s opening in earnest.