Monday, October 19, 2009

How to Begin Your Novel: Great Sentence Openers

The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

Image via Wikipedia

Let philosophers look for the substance that underlies all of creation. Let mathematicians and physicists construct axioms and build a cosmos and so interpret reality. Let linguists search for the Adamic language—but let master writers be free.

The fiction writer must be free to explore the depths of humanity. D. H. Lawrence said, “Being a novelist, I consider myself superior to the saint, the scientist, the philosopher and the poet. The novel is the one bright book of life.”

Yet, as disparate and chaotic as fine writers might seem to be, we can see that there’s some method to their madness. Master writers will tell the reader
what their novel is about right from the very beginning; they may not say it openly, but the hint is there for the reader to catch.

Tongue in cheek

Whether we like it or not sometimes we just have to go on reading and say to ourselves, “Let’s see where this is going to…” If Jane Austen in her opening of Pride and Prejudice uses the language of axioms and mathematics —“a truth universally acknowledged”— we have no choice but to assume that she is being not only lighthearted but also playful. “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Right away we feel that the novel will be humorous, light, and that the main theme will be about fortune and marriage.

A Sunday sermon

Having written his masterpiece, Ana Karenina, Tolstoy proceeds to write an opening sentence that would encapsulate what the long monster of a novel will be about. This is what he came up with: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” And unhappy families are the main attraction. I can just hear Tolstoy saying, “Anyone can write about happy families; there’s nothing interesting about them. But since unhappy families are unique in their own ill-fortunes—let’s be on our way, let me tell you about the Oblonsky’s, the Levin’s, and the Karenina’s.”

More than a dream—a nightmare

The Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez once declared that Kafka’s opening of his novelette The Metamorphosis, convinced him that he could write equally —if not better— fantastic stories. To dare to write the following sentence opener and book opener, Kafka must have felt total intellectual freedom: “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” Lesser writers beg for the readers’ indulgence and suspension of disbelief. Faced with the problem of verisimilitude most fiction writers agonize over this speed bump. Not Kafka. With one stroke of the pen he dunks his readers into the depths of a hellish nightmare.

A flash-forward and a flashback

Years of solitude, firing squads, colonels, the Buendias, ice, fathers, and distant afternoons is what Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is about. “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” Not only is the tone just right, but also laden with the coldness and violence of distant remembrances that no one else has bothered to tell.

A nameless narrator dreams

Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca is a Cinderella’s dream —converted into nightmare and at times deliriums— in which the nameless narrator faces formidable entanglements. “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” The novel is told as a suspenseful recollection where the ghost of Rebecca (the first wife) is more present and pernicious than the madwoman in the attic. And we read with futile passion till the very end, and nowhere do we see the young wife’s name.


Many fiction writers —in their effort to be engrossing and entertaining— will begin a novel and move on to the thick of the action, subjecting the reader to all kinds of adventures, digressions, dramas and sub-dramas, and often unrelated events. Yet, the main theme of the book isn’t treated until we are midway into the story. By paying attention to the above openings, story tellers can learn the technique of revealing the thrust of the story right in the opening. This detail will show that the author is sincere, honest, and that there’ll be no sleight of hand, deus ex machina, red-herrings, withholding of information, or other technical tricks.

Senada Selmani, model

To write great blogs, e-mails, term papers, essays, or fiction - Get Mary Duffy's

Sentence Openers

Itching to Become a Writer?

Visit Mary Duffy's Storefront

No comments:

Post a Comment