Here is a little lesson for my fellow writers. I know some of you are familiar with the subject matter that we will cover here. For those of you who, up until now, could not be bothered … this won’t hurt. I promise. Not too much, anyway.
Non-writers are welcome to take a look at this, too. I need all the readers I can get.
”It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford
This has become famous as possibly the worst opening sentence of any novel ever published. The prose that immediately follows is even worse, but that’s a whole other thing. Actually, reading anything by Bulwer-Lytton has the effect of giving a reader a great appreciation of Charles Dickens.
It’s a lot of fun to lampoon the above quote, and even more fun to try to top it. In fact, there is an annual contest named after Bulwer-Lytton, to see who can write the funniest really bad opening sentence to a fictitious novel. It can be found here: http://www.bulwer-lytton.com/index.html.
By the way, Bulwer-Lytton is also responsible for coming up with “the pen is mightier than the sword,” “the great unwashed” and “the almighty dollar.” So every time you are tempted to use a cliché, remember him.
”It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Now THAT’S better.
Dickens knew how to grab a reader’s attention and give a fun history lesson at the same time. He doesn’t even ask us to memorize dates. That is so nice of him.
“His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy’s white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed like a flower and the incarnation was complete.” F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Wow! That’s some kiss!
Gatsby needs to pay heed, though, to words like “unutterable visions” and “perishable breath.” Fitzgerald didn’t write like that just because he felt like using big words. Those are premonitions. In other words, Gatsby and Daisy are a damned pitiful match, like whisky and barbiturates. She would never marry him, because “rich girls don’t marry poor boys.” Now that Gatsby is rich, she’s willing to try him out, but she’s not exactly the reliable type. In fact, she’ll throw him under a bus later on – actually, she’ll allow him to throw himself under a bus for her, which is the same thing.
And oh yes – Gatsby knows you can’t strike a tuning fork on a star, which should also prod him to get while the getting’s good, if he has any sense, which he doesn’t.
“If thou feelest it to be for thy soul’s peace, and that thy earthly punishment will thereby be made more effectual to salvation, I charge thee to speak out the name of thy fellow-sinner and fellow-sufferer!” Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
This is the book that a lot of us were forced to read in high school, which means we ended up hating it. We would rather have been reading the dirty parts of The Catcher in the Rye from a contraband copy passed around from one kid to another. This is a shame, because, besides being beautifully written, The Scarlet Letter is a ripping good story.
The quote above is spoken by Reverend Dimmesdale to Hester Prynne. Hester has given birth to the good Reverend’s illegitimate child, for which she (Hester) is labeled a scarlet woman by the entire community – literally. She has to wear a big red “A” for “adultery” over her heart for the rest of her life. Of course, nobody knows who the father is, except the Reverend and Hester, and he feels free to say the words above because he’s betting that she won’t tell on him. Yes, he’s a hipocritical bastard.
See? That wasn’t so bad.