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On Writing

“First sentences establish a contract with the reader about what is to come.”

Kaushik Narasimhan, CC BY-SA

In Albert Camus’ The Plague (1947), an epidemic spreads across Oran, a town on Africa’s north coast, as Joseph Grand attempts to write a novel. Grand dreams of writing a book that will cause his publisher to leap up from his desk (the publishers in this world are men), and gasp in wonder.

But he can’t get the first sentence right. He worries at every detail, frets over meaning and rhythm. He arranges and rearranges it. There is no possibility of a second sentence. Without the first line, the novel is obstructed.

Camus had a blackly comic sense of humour. And so he causes Grand to go on scribbling through the night, parsing his phrases as the town around him is laid waste. Grand continues to write even as he succumbs to the disease himself. And after he is miraculously cured (the local doctor having burnt the offending manuscript), Grand returns to his sentence once again. He has, he tells the doctor, got the sentence by heart.

Like Hemingway in search of the “one true sentence” he needed for a story to begin – or Flaubert in his excruciating search for “Le Mot Juste” – Grand is convinced that a novel begins with its opening line, and by following that line the writer – no less than the reader – travels along a path to the novel’s final destination.

Camus is keenly alive to the absurdity of Grand’s conviction – the strange futility of his endeavours – but there is perhaps a subtler irony in the fact that he was equally alive to the formal requirements of a good opening sentence. Of course, he also knew that opening sentences are seldom written first, but somewhere in the muddle of the middle, or more often last, and as an afterthought.

An ‘angle of lean’

First sentences do a special kind of work. They have, as critic Stanley Fish once said, an “angle of lean”. They establish a contract with the reader about what is to come; they may sketch in a character, establish a mood, foreshadow a plot, or set out an argument. They seem to set the direction for every other sentence. The first words are also, in this sense, the last words.

Take, for example, Tolstoy’s famous opening from Anna Karenina (1873-77),

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

The sentence not only sets up one of Tolstoy’s key themes – the struggle between happiness and freedom, or, more broadly, between living for oneself and living for others. But it also throws up a series of questions or contradictions that will rule the lives of his characters until the very last page.

It is, of course, far from true that all happy families are alike. The idea is no more plausible than Jane Austen’s equally famous assertion in the opening of Pride and Prejudice (1813) that, “a man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” But the sentence is true for the world of the novel.

Most opening lines are a little less tyrannical, in the sense of being less overarching or all encompassing.

George Orwell’s Coming Up for Air (1939), for example, starts out with the oddly disturbing sentence,

The idea really came to me the day I got my new false teeth.

Here it is less the idea as such, and more the odd proximity of ideas and false teeth that the reader finds intriguing.

Oddity is also the principle characteristic of that other famous Orwellian first line of his dystopian novel 1984 (1949),

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking 13.

Here, the 13th strike indicates that things in Orwell’s world are deeply and desperately wrong, but nobody questions them – and, indeed, the reader at this stage is prepared to go along with it too.

Albert, CC BY-NC-SA

It is the task of an opening sentence to pull the reader over the threshold into the world of a book. But the way they do this is often unexpected. They can start with an action, or better still, the dramatic foreshadowing of action.

Graham Greene’s “Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him,” which begins Brighton Rock (1938), is difficult to beat.

Or they can start with a minor action that reveals something about a character. “They threw me off the hay truck about noon” tells us much about the dissolute protagonist of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934). Why, we ask, was he thrown off the hay truck? Was it something that he did?

Modern writers have become very adept at throwing out these kinds of narrative hooks – often in multiples.

Elmore Leonard begins The Big Bounce (1969) like this,

They were watching Ryan beat up the Mexican crew leader on 16mm Commercial Ektachrome.

Who is Ryan, we ask. Why is he beating up the Mexican crew leader? Why are they watching him? Who are they? And how on earth did all this make it onto 16mm Commercial Ektachrome?

These sentences are successful in luring the reader because they are plucked from the midst of events. Margaret Atwood starts her dystopic The Handmaiden’s Tale (1985) in much the same way:

We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.

Why, we ask, are they sleeping in the gymnasium? Why is the gymnasium no longer a gymnasium? And, indeed, who are we?

Not always so showy

Modern writers have become particularly adept at composing first sentences. They are – admittedly – the first line of defence against rejection by a publisher, or indeed, by an increasingly impatient and time poor reader.

But, in the history of the novel form, first sentences weren’t always so showy.

Jane Austen might be known for the words “It was a truth generally acknowledged …” but among the many first sentences that she wrote is the comparatively prosaic “The family of Dashwood had long been settled in Sussex”, which opens Sense and Sensibility (1811).

And, of course, early novels like those of Defoe or Richardson, for example, were so hemmed in by short and long titles, prefaces, prologues and epigraphs that it often becomes difficult to decide – in a purely formal sense – where the novel begins.

One of the opening lines I regularly set my students is the simple ten-word sentence that opens a novel that was sent unsolicited and under a pseudonym to a London publisher late in August, 1847. It reads,

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.

The simplicity of the sentence is deceptive. Why do they walk, we ask, and where do they walk? Why was there “no possibility”? In just a few words the reader knows a lot. We know that the characters have a routine; that the routine occurs daily. It is therefore perhaps more than a routine but a custom or indeed an obligation tied to a set of social norms or a way of life.

We know this – innocuously enough – from the use of the relative pronoun “that”, which restricts the meaning or application of the action to “that day”, as opposed to all the other days. But it is perhaps the words “no possibility” that stay with us.

These words tell us that had there been the remotest chance then the characters would certainly have gone. In searching among the possible reasons – the inference of windy weather or wild woodlands – the reader might even presume that there is something a little harsh in it. In which case they would be right. It is the opening sentence of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847).

The end of the beginning

Camus’ The Plague (1947) describes a pestilence that is both literal and allegorical. It is a story about Fascism, which might well be read as parable about hyper-capitalism in our own time. Of all Camus’ novels, none describes humanity’s coexistence with death on such an epic scale. Yet Camus opens The Plague with a sentence that is deliberately plain and detached:

The unusual events described in this chronicle occurred in 194- at Oran.

In an article about first sentences the better example would be Camus’ The Stranger (1942), which begins,

Mother died today. Or maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.

The Stranger possesses the more alluring opening. But a reader would be hard pressed to tell which is the better book.

Which just goes to show that a first sentence – however dazzling – only gets you so far.

Tell us your favourite first lines in the comments, or tweet them to @ConversationEDU.

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