Saturday, August 3, 2013

On Opening Sentences (Part Two)

I could hardly waste the opportunity to provide a few examples of my favorite opening sentences, even if my opinions might not carry the weight of, say, Stephen King. Naturally, many of my favorite openers-- "Call me Ishmael," etc.-- have already been covered extensively, so I've tried to venture slightly off the beaten path. First off:

"Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach"--Watchmen by Alan Moore. 

Watchmen, one of the greatest comic books ever written, begins with a brutal gut-punch of a sentence (for once, pun not intended) that immediately places the reader inside the vigilante Rorschach's warped brain. It's an uncomfortable place to be, in part because Rorschach's cracked logic and grim view of the world make a disturbing amount of sense.

"When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton" --The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien.

Like many of his high fantasy peers, Tolkein has often been saddled with accusations of long-windedness, but here he expertly establishes an entire world in one sentence. Plus, there's something wonderful about the almost Seussian delight he takes in warping and manipulating language.

"The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another his mother called him 'WILD THING!' and Max said 'I'LL EAT YOU UP!' so he was sent to bed without eating anything"-- Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.

For a picture book with only a handful of sentences, Sendak had to make every word count. He does so by capturing all of its themes in the first sentence, a rollicking, weird, poetic meditation on the terrifying wildness of childhood.

"Gentle reader, I presume thou wilt be very inquisitive to know what antic or personate actor this is, that so insolently intrudes upon this common theatre, to the world's view, arrogating another man's name; whence he is, why he doth it, and what he hath to say; although, as he said, Primum si noluero, non respondebo, quis coacturus est? I am a free man born, and may choose whether I will tell; who can compel me?"-- from The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton

Now, I realize a 2,000 page 17th Century treatise on melancholy (similar, but not identical to what we now call "depression") does not exactly have mass appeal, but it's a very important book to me and a few English nerds, so I thought I would go ahead and include it's playful, faux-modest, even irreverent introductory sentence. Burton delights in knowledge and language in a way that I-- surprise!-- find incredibly appealing.

I hope I've succeeded, at least, in producing a highly idiosyncratic list. I could think of more great opening sentences, but I'd rather hear which ones resonate with you, dear reader.

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