05 August 2013

Second to None! On subsequent sentences and where they go when ignored.

I actually hate the number 8. A couple birthdays aside, August is my least favorite month. I'm not fond of "L8R" either. There's just something about that smugness it carries. Round at the top, round at the bottom, perfectly even, 4+4, or its "oh so" clever 2+2+2+2 business. So here it is, that dreaded month: the end of summer, the start back to school, the hottest time of the year, the days when dogs eat grass (I've heard it said). At this point, there is no more "endless summer".

And all I can think to do as my first August blog is to share some sentences of no particular import. On a recent trip, I had hours of driving to contemplate the opening sentences of THE DREAM LAND trilogy. Now that Book III is complete and being edited, I must return to that weak spot I've always had: the opening sentence.

Countless author blogs have reported on the necessity of a great first sentence, as though that alone tells potential readers (bookstore browsers, etc.) all they need to know about the book. Alternatively, an old literature professor--the one who actually taught me something useful (as a writer, not as an English professor)--said that a good author will teach the reader how to read the text in the first few pages. Pages! Not one all-important sentence. (Also, note the word 'teach'; thus, it's not 'You stay in your world and try to understand this text'; 'No, you must come into my world, the world of the text, but fear not for I shall guide you....')

Well, I subscribe to the latter notion. If a potential reader will not read the second sentence or others beyond the first, perhaps that reader should stick to graphic novels or Twitter. Not to be disrespectful to a majority of our finer readers, for an opening sentence is still important to setting the story in many ways; however, like much of literature, an opening sentence is intended not to stand alone but to lead to the next sentence, and that second sentence to lead to the third, and so on. It's a whole industry, not a sample bite in a grocery store. Have some patience, dear reader!

To that end (er...beginning, whatever), I look strongly at the second and third sentences and note how they proceed from the opening sentence. That shows me flow. More often than not, there will be a joke or some clever juxtaposition that strikes interest in the reader...several sentences down from that first word of that first sentence. The images, the word play, the introduction of a character or setting...the accumulation of ideas...is what catches the interest of the reader [I suggest].

By way of example, I offer the opening paragraph of each of the three volumes of THE DREAM LAND Trilogy, for your amusement today:

“I was face up in a vast snowfield, sun on my face, and all around me were hundreds of half-buried skeletons. The yellow sun was glaring off the snow, blinding me, and the blue sun was winking at me from the horizon, but all I could think of was ‘I’m freezing to death!’ They took my greatcoat, and I didn’t have any boots. In fact, I couldn’t feel my legs below the knees. I wanted to check them, but I was too frozen to move. I wanted to cry out for help but I was afraid of calling the ones who did this to me. I kept thinking ‘It’s all a mistake’ and ‘I don’t belong here.’ Then I looked up at a small branch stretching over me. I followed the branch to its end and there was a single drop of thaw hovering there. It was about to fall. I watched it for a moment—then it fell! Straight down to my legs! It hit my legs—which were frozen solid—and they shattered into a million splinters! There was nothing left but stumps! And I cried my brains out in pain—but there was no pain because everything was frozen! And I was wondering how the hell I was going to get home without my legs.”

This monologue is intended to come out all in a rush to create a tossing of imagery fast and furious, to create a composite image of a scene...a dire, wintry situation...which may or may not be resolved in the next paragraph.

The yellow sun was beginning to warm the room, the misty, frayed globe high enough that he knew dawn was coming to an end. The blue sun was still below the horizon.

One paragraph, short and sweet. All seems fine in the first sentence. The second, however, adds a twist which is scientifically designed to pique a reader's curiosity.

THE DREAM LAND Book III “Diaspora”

He felt the sand scratching his face before he opened his eyes. A faint dream hovered wallflower-like at the edge of his dance card, afraid to let itself go and twirl about the floor no matter who might be watching. Letting the image sail away on a breeze, he pushed out his legs, stretched his arms up, bent his neck—and in every movement felt pain shoot through his body like lightning, like fire and ice. He stopped, grimacing against Fate once more, like some old habit his mother had scolded him for. When his eyes opened he saw what he had expected to see, yet the sight of the desert landscape, red and brown below the emerald sky, seemed to catch him by surprise.

Textures is the theme of this opening paragraph: imagine yourself waking up in the desert. And realizing your Fate is not quite as you expected it to be. You are in trouble!

So there you have it: examples of second (and third, etc.) sentences flowing from first sentences. I hope now that everyone will henceforth pay more attention to those sentences who do not come in first but still try so very hard!

Next time: The importance of a mind-blowing final sentence.

(C) Copyright 2010-2013 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

1 comment:

  1. I like the dry humor with which you instruct us, Professor! Keep them laughing, and they will learn with less effort. I completely agree with the importance of a good second and third sentence. In fact I shall take your advice and attempt to make each consecutive sentence as powerful as I can!