Opening Paragraphs

Those of us who write have had it explained to us – not to say ‘driven into our heads’, that the first paragraph of our novels must contain a ‘hook’ for the reader, must be concise, interesting and well-written. If that’s the case, what do you think of this opening paragraph:

The triple-pane floor-to-ceiling windows of Hollister’s study frame the rising plain to the west, the foothills and the distant Rocky Mountains that were long ago born from the earth in cataclysm, now dark and majestic against a sullen sky. It is a view to match the man who stands at this wall of glass. The word cataclysm is a synonym for disaster or upheaval but also for revolution, and he is the leader of the greatest revolution in history. The greatest and the last. The end of history is near, after which his vision of a pacified world will endure forever.

The question was posed by Harry Bingham of Jericho Writers in his Friday email a couple of months ago. Before I tell you who is the author of this paragraph, let me give you Harry’s take on the paragraph.

Harry says: “I hope you agree that the sentence is bad. If the sentence just ran like this:

The triple-pane floor-to-ceiling windows of Hollister’s study frame the rising plain to the west.

– you could just about digest it. Even in that much abbreviated form (14 words versus 39) you’re being asked to compose these elements:

The windows are triple-paned

  • They run floor-to ceiling.
  • They are in the study belonging to someone called Hollister.
  • A rising plain is visible through the windows.
  • The plain runs west from the windows.

The full version of the sentence, however, adds in these additional elements:

  • There are foothills.
  • And the Rocky Mountains.
  • The Rocky Mountains were born long ago, and in cataclysm.
  • These mountains are now looking dark and majestic.
  • The sky is sullen.

This is quite clearly an awful lot of ingredients, particularly in an opening sentence. Worse still, the sentence shifts focus. The first part of it is clearly talking about windows. The last part is talking about mountains. What are we meant to be focusing on? It’s just not clear. (Or, as it happens, even correct. The Rocky Mountains weren’t born in cataclysm. They formed when two tectonic plates ran gently together, thereby pushing the earth upwards. That process ran for about 30 million years and is extremely slow, not even one millimetre a year.)

Oh yes, and if we were being mean, I think we’d suggest that the adjectives (dark, majestic, sullen) are all rather shopworn in their obviousness.

OK. So we don’t like the first sentence. The second sentence feels a bit better:

It is a view to match the man who stands at this wall of glass.

The feeling engendered in a competent reader is likely to be one of extreme awkwardness – like you’re talking to a boring man in a pub, and he leans in too close, and his breath smells of beer and bacon-flavour crisps, and he tells you something which you know to be untrue of the mountains outside, and you notice that his toupee has slipped. You want to get away, but there’s something desperately adhesive about the whole situation.

Clarity (and an exit from the pub-situation) comes with the remainder of the paragraph. This chap at the window is a revolutionary. He has Dr Evil style plans for the planet. Paragraph two talks about his need to kill someone. Paragraph three discusses his intention to make the kill himself.

Overall? Your impression?

I think you’re going to agree with me that the writing is awkward. Needs improvement before it goes to a literary agent.

The trouble is, we’ve just discussed the opening paragraphs of a Dean Koontz novel, The Night Window, and guy has sold 450 million or more novels worldwide. So he’s doing something right.”

Dean Koontz

“I most certainly know that I could never bring myself to write those sentences. Yet perhaps their badness is part of what attracts Koontz’s readers. Here are some possibilities:

1. The first sentence is overfilled with information, but perhaps that presents Koontz as a fount of knowledge – establishes him as some kind of authority.

2. For that reason it doesn’t matter that his geology is dubious or that his vocabulary-facts are roughly ninth grade.

3. His readers are probably interested more in grand external story (the biggest revolution in history) than in fine interior details. The fact-first presentation style somehow authorises those preferences. The subsequent material about Hollister’s plans to kill people confirm that we’re in graphic novel/James Bond territory, not anything more refined.”

Finally, Harry makes the point that it’s important, as a writer, to be true to yourself. “Dean Koontz has been true to himself and to his half-dozen pseudonyms.”

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