Today’s first sentences are from Dostoevsky, Orwell, and Elie Wiesel (in order):
“Alexey Fyodorovitch Karamazov was the third son of Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov, a landowner well known in our district in his own day, and still remembered among us owing to his gloomy and tragic death, which happened thirteen years ago, and which I shall describe in its proper place.” (The Brothers Karamazov)
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” (1984)
“They called him Moishe the Beadle, as if his entire life he had never had a surname.” (Night)
Most writers say the first sentence is the most important line in a book. It sets the tone, invites the reader to keep reading or bores him away, and often makes the difference between publication and rejection. As my love of reading, and words in particular, grows, I’ve become more interested in learning what makes a great sentence. This reminds of me of an anecdote in a book about writing sentences where a young, aspiring author meets with a publisher whom he tells he cares about one thing and one thing only: he wants to write great sentences. Not just great books. Great sentences. I love the passion and particularity of that anecdote.
So in this spirit, I’m trying something new here. On Fridays, I’ll post a few first sentences that strike me as excellent – worth examining as much as enjoying. Hence, “First Sentence Friday.” (Now, if you can think of a more fun and catchy name that doesn’t connote the kind of sentences handed by cold, mean judges, do let me know.)
Today’s sentences come from three classic works by the authors above – from early 19th-century England, the American Roaring Twenties, and mid-century Latin America, from the hand of the recently deceased master, Gabriel García Márquez:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” (Pride and Prejudice,1813)
“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.” (The Great Gatsby, 1925)
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” (One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1967)
Every couple of months or so I read a book to help me improve my writing, and now I’m reading Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer (Little, Brown, 2008). I’ve only read about four or five books on the craft of writing, and this is my favorite (with William Zinsser’s classic On Writing Well close behind; but for a truly fun read on writing “great sentences,” check out Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One). Clark’s guide is entertaining, full of common sense, and rich in practical tips that can take your writing to the next level.
I wanted to share this passage from his chapter showing how sentence length helps set the pace for the reader. He offers this delightfully brilliant example from the book 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing by Gary Provost:
“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals – sounds that say listen to this, it is important.
“So write with a combination of short, medium, and long sentences. Create a sound that pleases the reader’s ear. Don’t just write words. Write music (91).”
NOTE: Did you notice how the first 9 sentences of this passage are all five-word sentences? That’s right. Read it again and enjoy.