The Magic of Sentences

The other Sunday I discovered a new series in The New York Times called Draft about the art and craft of writing. The first article in the series, entitled, My Life’s Sentences, by Jumpa Lahiri, included delicious descriptions of Lahiri’s particular practice of creating sentences in her head, moving them to paper and then re-writing and changing them constantly until the book she is writing is finally printed. This piece captured perfectly the strange need we writers have of arranging words in a particular way, finding the best order in which to place them to convey the thoughts and action of our characters, how sentences are like living breathing organisms that evolve until they have just the right structure. Depending on the role of the sentence, that evolution can take a substantial amount of time. Sometimes, it’s nearly impossible to stop messing with them.

The next article in the Draft series, published a few days later was, again, about sentences, or “mini-narratives” as the writer, Constance Hale, thinks of them because they feature a protagonist (the subject) and some sort of drama (the predicate). In this article, Hale looks at some famous first sentences from great novels. Recently I’ve been looking through some of my favorite contemporary novels, particularly their first sentences, trying to discern that special quality they have which captured me at first sight. I’m now sending out queries for my latest novel and know that any agent out there will be either pulled in or turned off by my first line. It’s so intimidating that the first sentence out of so many needs to do so much! Naturally, I’ve re-written that sentence many times. I’m tempted to include it here but can’t seem to make myself do it. Instead, here are some of my favorite first sentences from books I have read recently, and a couple that have stayed with me for a very long time.

* “The news of Anders Eckman’s death came by way of Aerogram, a piece of bright blue airmail paper that served as both the stationery and, when folded over and sealed along the edges, the envelope.” State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

* “To start with, look at all the books.” The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

* “One of the many things my brother, Corrigan, and I loved about our mother was that she was a fine musician.” Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann.

* “The book was thick and black and covered with dust.” Possession by A.S. Byatt

* “In my earliest memory, my grandfather is bald as a stone and he takes me to see the tigers.” The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

Okay, I told myself I must stop at five. But, because the master cannot be ignored, even if this is not contemporary fiction, this last:

* “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

It would be so nice to know, dear reader, some of your favorite sentences. Go on, tell me. You know you want to.  Just hit that “comment” button…..

– Rachel



About writeinseattle

Two Seattle writers examining the writer's life.
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7 Responses to The Magic of Sentences

  1. EB says:

    “Our universe is like a French pastry: full of air yet unspeakably rich, and really, don’t you think one will do?” — The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, Natalie Anglier

  2. Dave77 says:

    “On they went, singing ‘Rest Eternal,’ and whenever they stopped, their feet, the horses, and the gusts of wind seemed to carry on their singing.” – Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak

  3. The burning sun of Syria had not yet attained its highest point in the horizon, when a knight of the Red Cross, who had left his distant northern home and joined the host of the Crusaders in Palestine, was pacing slowly along the sandy deserts which lie in the vicinity of the Dead Sea, or, as it is called, the Lake Asphaltites, where the waves of the Jordan pour themselves into an inland sea, from which there is no discharge of waters. – The Talisman; Walter Scott

  4. Rachel says:

    You win for the longest sentence so far, Barbara!

  5. Meigs says:

    He was fond of angling, and seemed proud of being able to like such a stupid occupation. — Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

  6. Sophie says:

    While still a child, I guessed that this very singular smile represented a strange little victory for each of the women: yes, a fleeting revenge for disappointed hopes, for the coarseness of men, for the rareness of beautiful and true things in the world. — Dreams of My Russian Summers, Andrei Makine

  7. Janis Wildy says:

    It wasn’t a very likely place for disappearances, at least at first glance. – Outlander, Diana Gabaldon

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