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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, April 09, 2007

an opening sentence--in depth

Last Thursday, when I went to visit my mother for lunch, she had a bag of books resting in the front hall, ready to be taken off to a thrift store for charitable resale. The top book in the bag was the paperback version of The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. Never having read the book, I picked it up to have a look.

Of course I'm aware that The Da Vinci Code is one of the best-selling books of all time (I recall a figure of 40 million copies sold). It alone will have made its author a multi-millionaire. It didn't even appear in paperback until the release of the movie version last year, so the book will have been a particularly rich source of revenue for Dan Brown.

Good for him: I salute anyone who can do well at writing. I also think he did not deserve to be sued by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, two of the authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, a key source of ideas for The Da Vinci Code. Unless The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail was intended as a work of fiction, they were wrong to sue him, and I'm glad he won.

I have undergone a fair amount of angst ever since I heard about The Da Vinci Code, since I am making use of many of the same ideas (I think) in my own work; I too was inspired and fascinated by The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, and felt a huge uprushing of creative energy when I read it in 1994. The fact that Dan Brown "got there first" and hit such incredible pay-dirt with this material I found troubling and dispiriting. Partly for that reason, I didn't want to read or even look at The Da Vinci Code until I had finished my own book.

While Mom heated up some homemade beef soup for us to eat, I perused the opening scene of chapter 1 and we talked about the book (Mom herself could not get into it, and bailed after the first few chapters). I thought I would express some of my findings here in my blog.

First: the novel opens with a dramatic prologue--a device I generally frown on, as I have pointed out in previous posts (such as this one). Usually a dramatic (as opposed to expository) prologue is a "grabber" intended to hook the interest of the reader, who otherwise might find the story starting at chapter 1 to be too boring. Typically it contains a murder scene or other shocking or surprising element, and is intended to make the reader wonder more about the world of the story. The bad thing here is that the writer is himself sending the signal that he's afraid his story opens in a boring way. The writer thinks the story is boring--not good. Following my usual policy in assessing a novel, I skipped the prologue. I understand there is some kind of albino geek in the book who kills people, and I expect the prologue contains the first of those killings.

On to chapter 1 proper, then. I don't have the book in front of me (got to pick it up from Mom's place), so I can only quote the first sentence verbatim:

Robert Langdon awoke slowly.

I'll start with that. I'll go into some detail, because I think first sentences are important--I often use them to decide whether I want to read on.

Overall, I think it's a fairly weak first sentence. Not terrible, perhaps, but not great. It tells us four things: that there is a character called Robert Langdon; that he was asleep; that he is now waking up; and that he is waking up slowly, as opposed to quickly. In storytelling terms, let's see what this does for us.

Robert Langdon: Character names are important. This is a fairly bland, Anglo name--no crime in itself; there are no doubt many Robert Langdons in the world living worthwhile lives. But it doesn't give us as much of a sense of character as might a less colorless name. How might you feel if the book had opened with

Myron Berkowitz awoke slowly ?

Oliver Mbehele awoke slowly ?

Luz Fernandez awoke slowly ?

Differently, no? Of course, we don't know anything about these characters either, but they provoke us into imagining backgrounds for them a bit more--we have the beginnings of expectations about them, expectations that may well be defeated by the story, but that will create subtle tensions within us, tensions that are, in my view, synonymous with interest. Robert Langdon right off the bat has a harder job in getting us to imagine him as vivid and real. Is he a banker? A blue-collar worker? A drug dealer? No way of knowing as yet. He's a blank slate.

Next: awoke. That's okay--awoke is a perfectly fine verb. It tells us he was sleeping, an activity we can all relate with. We're willing to extend the narrator credit that the fact Langdon was sleeping may be important for some reason.

then: slowly. Hm. Why modify the verb awoke here? Presumably it matters that he awoke slowly as opposed to quickly or "normally". To me it suggests deep unconsciousness, or perhaps the gentleness of the stimulus that awakens him. I might be awoken slowly by a soft breeze starting to move through my Mexican beach cabana, for instance. Or I might awaken slowly after taking sleeping pills, or being knocked unconscious.

It will turn out that Langdon was indeed deeply asleep in a Paris hotel room, tired from giving a lecture earlier on. But I don't find that this opening sentence tells me much of use or interest about the scene. It is utilitarian; I get the feeling that it is simply something to communicate the name of the main character. The transition from sleep to waking is symbolically powerful, and could be heavily charged. Another (very different) novel that opens with a character waking up--or rather with the dream from which he awakes--is Gravity's Rainbow, which opens famously thus:

A screaming comes across the sky.

When I first read this I wasn't sure what it meant, but I did get a sense of uncanniness and danger--a bit of the dread of having a bomb or missile approach. It's certainly not bland, and too poetic to be a run-of-the-mill "grabber" or "shocker" opening, although it does have shock value. The unusual use of the gerund screaming signals that this writer is a poet who is willing to try things to achieve his effects. It establishes the subject-matter of the book: the development of the German V2 rockets in World War Two, as well as the important theme that these weapons, which live on in the form of the giant nuclear arsenals of today, are aimed at us all right now. Thomas Pynchon has opened his novel by launching a ballistic missile right at us. At six words, his opening sentence is 50% longer than Brown's, but two of those words are a and the--function-words that simply hold the rest of the sentence grammatically together. Four words do the main duty: screaming comes across sky (the way a Russian might say it).

You might say it's no fair to compare Dan Brown to Thomas Pynchon, and sure, it isn't. But a sentence can do a lot of duty for your story, or not, whether you're writing a smaller novel (and arguably Brown's novel is hunting even bigger thematic game, in a sense, than Pynchon's) or a major work.

Of course, to do a proper assessment of the first sentence we need to look at its context: what comes after it. But that will have to wait until I get my hands on a copy of the book again!

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  • I start The Charioteer with a character awakening, but it's a bit different from Brown:

    --Swords clashed with a vibrating bang. Ciaran jerked awake. A fight in the peristyle? In near darkness, he jumped out of the bed, belted his tunica and groped for the sword on the chest beside the bedstead.--

    I had originally started with Ciaran, but I think it works better to start with the noise that creeps into Ciaran's sleep and wakes him. His reaction is that of a trained warrior - fast and to the point. And the name 'Ciaran' in connection with a Roman villa should stir some interest in the reader, at least I hope so. ;)

    Btw, I nominated you for a Thinking Blogger Award a fun little meme going on in the blogsphere. Jump over and join. :)

    By Blogger Gabriele C., at April 13, 2007 1:20 PM  

  • Many thanks for the kind thoughts, Gabriele, and for sharing your own material.

    Guess I'll have to look into this Thinking Blogger thing...I think.

    By Blogger paulv, at April 13, 2007 4:08 PM  

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