‘It was the best of times it was the worst of times.’ There are twenty six letters to the alphabet and Charles Dickens used up 11 of them to create that first sentence. That includes four of the five vowels. When I first read it I worried that he would run out of letters, but he just kept on dipping into the pool, mixing and matching them up to suit his purpose. And the purpose of that first line and the several lines that followed was not so much to impress (impressed though I was), it was more about setting up the tale and comparing the two cities.
I’ve got any amount of first lines languishing in the bottom drawer, but they’ve never done me any good. One of my favourites is a woman who sits ‘on the staircase waving a cig in one hand and a vodka straight up in the other. Half of her was hanging out of something black and tight.’ I liked it when I coined it and like it still. It gets hauled out now and again to inspire me. I still don’t know who she is, despite her appalling dress sense. Your guess is as good as mine what she’s doing on that staircase (is it hers?) or where she and the story are heading. The thing is, I’ve got access to the same letters that Dickens did, you’d think it would be easy to move this lady off the staircase and send her on her way. But she sticks to it like a limpet without any regard to the rest of the characters who want to go home or to me.
I have had a hard enough time with that one character; I can’t imagine how Dickens managed to take a bunch of seemingly disparate characters and tie them together into an interconnected whole. There’s the wishy-washy Darnay who gets the girl and gets saved from the guillotine without having to lift a finger; the noble Sydney Carton who believes that ‘it’s a far, far better thing’ that he does when he sacrifices his life on the altar of unrequited love for the golden haired Lucie Manette, wife of Charles Darnay. But my favourite is the villain of the piece, the unspeakable Madam Defarge who sits at the foot of the guillotine every day watching and relishing executions and knitting a registry of the names of aristocrats who will join their mutilated brothers and sisters. This story has, as I’ve mentioned, aristocrats, it has peasants, protagonists, a revolution and revolutionaries and there’s suspense. It’s dispiriting because though Dickens’ style is old-fashioned and his characters quaint, the man can spin a yarn, by gum.
‘…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.’
As a reader, I could have gone way satisfied to leave it at that introduction. A hundred and forty odd years down the track and I find myself relating to those prophetic words. As a writer I was both in awe and depressed. Even if we doubled the letters I couldn’t do it.
In a short story, a writer of can’t be frivolous with her words. Each one must count to further the plot and to move the story forward. As a short story and an article writer I tend to arrive, say what I have to say, and leave the scene. Waste not want not is my motto. A novel writer has more latitude and can ramble on for pages (I can’t do that). The first sentence of a novel needn’t have a particular purpose although some novelists will use the first paragraph to propel the protagonist and the reader on an immediate journey straight out of his or her comfort zone.
In his book, “A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes”, (I haven’t read it) Stephen Hawking said that if there was a horde of typing monkeys, then “very occasionally by pure chance they will type out one of Shakespeare’s sonnets.” He wasn’t the first but I don’t believe it.
It sounds plausible but I think it’s just a clever ploy to crank things up when there’s a lull in the conversation. Believe me, this little monkey has analysed to pieces her favourite authors, has jumbled up the alphabet to see what she can come up with and has flirted with a bit of stream of consciousness. I don’t think Dickens or Shakespeare have anything to worry about.
I mention in my ‘About Me’ that I wrote a novel once and that I use it as a door stop on hot summer nights. I re-read the manuscript recently to see if anything could be salvaged. It’s lovely prose but meaningless. There are too many novel writers who should find a niche elsewhere. I know people who write articles and short stories and some even review and advise on other people’s novels. That’s okay in my opinion. Many of us have accepted that we were just not fated to write that novel.