Thursday, September 20, 2012

First sentences

While looking up the subject of cowboys in order to introduce the idea of Stetson Cowboy hats, I came across this quote by Larry McMurtry, the writer.  Several of his books were turned into films, and these stories are probably best known now by their movie titles: Hud, The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment, and Lonesome Dove. 

The quote from McMurtry below is one of several listed in my clipping, but this one particularly relates to writers and the art of writing...


"You expect far too much of a first sentence. Think of it as analogous to a good country breakfast: what we want is something simple, but nourishing to the imagination. Hold the philosophy, hold the adjectives, just give us a plain subject and a verb and perhaps a wholesome, non-fattening adverb or two."

Many books on writing make an enormous fuss about the first sentence, and will quote famous first sentences as though the authors of them knew somehow that these same first sentences would become famous in their own right.  Some of them ignore McMurtry's advice and land us with a piece of philosophy: 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] or, Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. [Anna Karenina]

But without the rest of the book, these first sentences would never have survived.  Neither of these two sentences is so remarkable that it makes us necessarily want to read further.  What these two sentences tend to do is sum up the theme of the book that follows.  

That isn't the way most books begin.  Here's an example I've pinched from Ben Myer's blog.  (You can also find a quiz on first sentences out of children's books, here.)   This one engages the reader (which is what McMurtry had in mind) without telling the reader how it will all work out.   

‘High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour.’ [David Lodge: Changing Places]

Or another example from Ben Myer, this time Flannery O'Connor in full throttle: Francis Marion Tarwater's uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Saviour at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up.’

What that sentence does is tell you that you're about to enter a world that's pretty extraordinary and so hold onto your braces.  

I'm not going to repeat everything here that Ben Myers has included in his survey of first sentences, but, since I'm once again reading G K Chesterton (The Common Man, this time), I'm going to leave this topic with this wonderful opening sentence - and the one following.  It comes from Chesterton's Autobiography, which is, in some places, almost as much a book of fiction as fact.  

‘Bowing down in blind credulity, as is my custom, before mere authority and the tradition of the elders, superstitiously swallowing a story I could not test at the time by experiment or private judgement, I am firmly of the opinion that I was born on the 29th of May, 1874, on Campden Hill, Kensington; and baptised according to the formularies of the Church of England in the little church of St George opposite the large Waterworks Tower that dominated that ridge. I do not allege any significance in the relation of the two buildings; and I indignantly deny that the church was chosen because it needed the whole water-power of West London to turn me into a Christian.’





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