One True Sentence
The Workshop #05
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Hemingway once famously broke it down like this, he said: ‘All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’
This is great advice, but as with all great advice that is of aphorism length, there is a ton of nuance and discussion to be had about this.
And so that’s what I am going to offer today. There will be a little bit of general discussion about the nature of great opening lines and then I’ll break down a few examples to show you this theory in action.
So if you can settle down at the back and pay attention, I’ll begin this weeks class.
The Nature of Openings
So. On the most prosaic level, the purpose of a sentence, any sentence, is to get you to read the next one. The goal is to move the reader with your writing. And to do that, they have to first make it to the end. And to do that you must make sure that the reader remains engaged and follows along. The breadcrumb trail has to be enticing enough to make the reader follow it all the way to the end, the end being where you have stored the pay-off of the meaning, the resolution, and the culmination of all of the themes, ideas, characters and plot movements that are built up via the breadcrumb trail itself.
Are you with me?
But what is it that makes that trail so tempting in the first place? Well, it’s two things: intrigue and trust. The opening lines have to be intriguing (or to use another word- compelling) enough to draw you in and you have to instantly be given a sense that you can trust that the writer knows what they are doing and knows where they are going.
Intrigue and trust.
Now, a mistake a lot of beginners make is that they go too big, too dramatic. But if someone were to try and tell you a story in the street and they began by grabbing you by the lapels and hurriedly shouting in your face, you wouldn’t be intrigued. You’d be repelled. All’s you would want to do would be to get away.
Intrigue can be created by an assured whisper and a beckoning finger more than it can by a bellowing carnival barker hawking his sideshow. Different genre’s have different conventions of course, but finesse is never the wrong move. Although, it is more difficult, hence the myriad of bad, overzealous openings out there.
Look at some of the all-time great openers: Call me Ishmael…, It was the best of time, it was the worst of times…, Mother died today. Or maybe, yesterday; I can't be sure. They all invite you in. There’s no harangue and none of the kind of big talk that is often a front to hide against scarcity and lack of confidence. No, instead they read like the equivalent of someone patting the empty chair next to them and saying ‘sit down, I’ve got a story to tell you that you are going to want to hear.’
Which ties in to the idea of trusting the author. In each example- and it’s as clear as day- you instantly trust that the author knows their business. They use simple, clear, everyday words (there becomes more scope for more challenging verbiage- within reason- once the trust of the author has become absolutely cemented later on in the story). They clearly have a handle on the rhythm of prose, on style, and in a mere handful of words they can already sketch the nature of the protagonist and what their journey of transformation will have to consist of. Whether it succeeds or fails.
Ishmael is our guide, our eyes, though he may recede into the periphery as the story unfurls. Magically you sense that in only three words. Not ‘I am Ishmael’; bold and declarative, not ‘Ishmael was the sailors name’; detached and with an omniscient authorial distance, but ‘Call me Ishmael’; warm, friendly, and just a little bit unsure and almost shy. And in only three words. Incredible.
And then look at the Camus opening: Mother died today. Or maybe, yesterday; I can't be sure- a note-perfect depiction of the haze of depressive detachment and alienation. He can’t remember the specifics of an absolutely tumultuous and defining event, he is completely unmoored from both himself and the world. And he seems to lack even the energy to care much.
And crucially, as readers all we want to know is why, and more to the point, how are these facts of his character going to play out? And so we keep reading.
The psychological truth of these lines (to go back to Hemingway’s advice) is palpable. They just feel right, they feel true. The characters- though we, as of yet, know hardly anything about them- feel real. And the feeling of believability makes you willing to invest in the story. Intrigue plus trust lead to investment. This is the vital point. Because once you are invested, once you are hooked, then the author has the means to guide you towards a powerful conclusion and a moving reading experience.
Let’s look closer.
Example One: The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford- Ron Hansen
This might be my favourite novel. I cite it every chance I get. I could talk about it all day. Stylistically and thematically it is exquisite. The way Hansen can paint pictures with words, the emotional and textural authenticity of his dialogue, his profound gift for poetic description and the way he can take vast mounds of historical research and turn them into environments and people who seemingly live and breathe is extraordinary.
And as evidence of all of that here is how he opens his masterpiece:
He was growing into middle age and was living then in a bungalow on Woodland Avenue. Green weeds split the porch steps, a wasp nest clung to an attic gable, a rope swing looped down from a dying elm tree and the ground below it was scuffed soft as floor. Jesse installed himself in a rocking chair and smoked a cigar down in the evening as his wife wiped her pink hands on a cotton apron and reported happily on their two children…
There is no drama, no action, but you are transported to Jesse’s time in an instant. Ursula Le Guin once said that ‘first sentences are doors to worlds’ and this is a vivid example of that idea in action. The poetry and the imagery make me trust Hansen in an instant. You are in the safe hands of a master here, clearly.
The ground below a rope swing being scuffed as soft as flour is a simple piece of description that in an instant takes me back to my own childhood. And it takes me to Jesse’s homestead, to a world before plastic and jet planes and WiFi. I am transported in an instant.
And there is intrigue too. Jesse James is a notorious figure, we know of the man and his deeds and his death before we even turn to the first page of this novel. This simple pastoral domesticity doesn’t chime with our knowledge of Jesse’s myth. We know the exploits but not the inner nature of the man. And so we read on, because we know that all is not as it seems. We know that things are going to turn tragic and we want to see what tapestry the genius of Hansen will weave as he lays out the inevitable fall of the outlaw.
Example Two: Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham
Now to an old, departed Americana of a different stripe, the seedy world of carneys and hucksters. Here’s how Gresham begins his great novel:
Stan Carlisle stood well back from the entrance to the canvas enclosure, under the blaze of a naked light bulb, and watched the geek.
This geek was a thin man who wore a suit of long underwear dyed chocolate brown. The wig was black and looked like a mop, and the brown greasepaint on the emancipated face was streaked and smeared with the heat and rubbed off around the mouth.
I don’t think I need to even point out where the intrigue lies here. It’s self evident. What happened to this poor wretch to make him become a freakshow geek? (Not coincidentally, this question drives the thrust of the narrative and the final scene pay-off gives you the answer). How can someone fall so low?
(One side effect of reading this novel is that afterward you will always shudder a little when you come across the word ‘geek’ in popular culture. Such is the power of great fiction to embed itself in your imagination.)
And the trust for the author is there too. In three sentences it is established. Gresham exhibits a clear and vivid prose style with arresting imagery and great rhythm. He engages the senses. He draws you in to his world. We all need to do likewise if we are to succeed with our literary efforts.
Example Three: The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V Higgins.
And now we move onto more genre fare, specifically the dark world of crime fiction. Here’s how Higgins opens up his legendary debut novel:
Jackie Brown at twenty-six, with no expression on his face, said that he could get some guns. ‘I can get your pieces probably by tomorrow night. I can get you, probably, six pieces. Tomorrow night. In a week or so, maybe ten days, I can get you another dozen. I got a guy coming in with at least ten of them but I already talked to another guy about four of them and he’s, you know, expecting them. He’s got something to do. So, six tomorrow night. Another dozen in a week.
Here’s the thing with openings. A great book teaches you how to read it as you are reading it. It sets the tone and sets your expectations and shows you the kind of world and themes and milieux you are going to be dealing with. This is why, when you read through books in a bookstore, you almost instantly know when a novel is for you and when it isn’t. Like the man once said: ‘If you’re reading it, it’s for you.’ When the artistic vision is laid out clearly in strong prose you know straight away if it’s your kind of thing or not.
And what we have here of course is a masterclass in gritty style. The book teaches you in an instant that this is going to be a very dialogue-heavy page-turner where we get to be flies on the wall to the authentic dealings and sins of small-time criminals. This is a street-level affair, no mansions and henchmen, just small-timers trying to make scores and avoid their near-inevitable fate of being killed or sent back to the can.
The intrigue of course is- what are the guns Jackie Brown is selling going to be used for? And the trust comes from that masterful dialogue: stylised and flowing but that reads as authentically as if you were sat at the next booth over, eavesdropping.
Higgins clearly knows his craft. And he clearly has a great story to tell. And so we are hooked and his in media res beginning is a roaring success.
Opening sentences are the portals to the fictional world you are going to create. You need to draw the reader over the threshold by intriguing them with a hook, a question, an incongruity. It doesn’t have to be signposted in neon letters (if this is done well it should almost be a subconscious effect- and this applies to all great writing), but you need to suggest the itch that only continuing reading will scratch.
You also need to demonstrate that you are a capable stylist, a canny psychologist and that the reader will be rewarded if they invest their time in reading you. You need to convince them by force of your prose that you know what you are doing.
This a lot to ask from a few short sentences. This is why openings are notoriously tricky and why writers will rework and rework them until they shine. The opening paragraph is, in a sense, the elevator pitch for the rest of the novel. You don’t have much time. There’s a lot at stake. But, like elevator pitches, you don’t want to be too forceful, too needy, to overeager and embarrassingly over-aggressive.
You need to be cool, demonstrate your skills and calmly coax the reader into investing in your story.
Until next time,
Do you have any writing questions or issues you want me to discuss? Get in touch via the comments or email and I’ll tackle them in future issues of The Workshop.