A Guest Post by Robb Grindstaff, Author of Hannah’s Voice and the Upcoming Carry Me Away
“You can’t really succeed with a novel anyway; they’re too big. It’s like city planning. You can’t plan a perfect city because there’s too much going on that you can’t take into account. You can, however, write a perfect sentence now and then. I have.” — Gore Vidal
I don’t know that I’ve ever written a perfect sentence, but I try. I’m one of those writers who fusses over every word, every punctuation mark, every phrase, every sentence. Some writers can spew words onto the page (or laptop) and the story falls into place with a light edit. I’m more the type who thinks about it for a bit, writes a sentence, and perhaps another, perhaps even a fragment of a scene, then I read and re-read what I’ve written. Is it expressing what I want to say? Am I saying it the right way? Will this particular set of words, in this precise order, capture the moment or action or thought or emotion that is in my imagination and accurately convey it to the readers exactly the way I want them to experience it? Probably not, so I edit, revise, delete, rewrite, and read it over and over.
Then I move on to the next moment in the story. Well, it’s not always quite that painstaking on the first draft. I’ll get caught up in the story and write a chapter or two or three in a single stretch. But soon, I’ll start reading what I’ve written and trying to fine tune each and every word, every comma, every sentence until it’s as good as I can make it and says exactly what I want it to say.
“This morning I took out a comma and this afternoon I put it back in again.” — Oscar Wilde
This, I’m sure, drives my editors nuts when they suggest changes, like wanting to change one word or one comma that I’d spent forty-five minutes on and changed twenty times until I thought it was perfect.
“Every word you add dilutes the sentence.” – Miller Williams
I’m the type of writer who polishes a sentence by taking words away rather than adding them. This, I’m sure, drives my editing clients nuts. I’ve had clients send me a 100,000-word manuscript, and I sent them back an 80,000-word novel without deleting a single scene.
Because this is the writer curse which afflicts me, what really stands out to me are great and perfect sentences. The best novels are those with a perfect first sentence and a perfect last sentence, assuming all the sentences between are at least pretty good.
Here are a few of my favorite ‘perfect’ first and last lines of great novels.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
First line: You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter.
Last line: But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.
Notice how Twain establishes the first-person narrator/character and the voice in that opening sentence. Today, we tend to frown on the character speaking directly to the reader, or characters referring to previous novels in which they’ve appeared, but here it works. In the hands of a master, anything can work.
The last line fully resolves the story, looks ahead to the future, and creates the impression in the reader’s mind that this story and character continues on. The character’s voice has never wavered, consistent from the first sentence to the last.
The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
First line: If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
Last line: Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.
Here’s another first-person story that opens with the character talking to ‘you,’ the reader. I don’t recommend this, but it works here. Again, the voice and the character are immediately established in one sentence, and the character is letting the reader in on a secret. I love how he says “I don’t feel like going into it,” and then proceeds to tell the entire story, although he never does go into all that background, the perfect set-up for the unreliable narrator. He ends with ‘Don’t ever tell anybody anything’ right after telling us everything. It comes full circle to complete resolution.
Let’s move to a third-person voice:
The Trial, Franz Kafka
First line: Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.
Last Line: “Like a dog!” he said; it was as if the shame of it must outlive him.
Here’s an opening sentence that is simple, direct, and matter-of-fact. Someone must have done something because this happened. Yet it immediately creates intrigue and mystery, and it sets the tone for the entire story. We never know who caused Josef K. to be arrested. We never know why he was arrested, or on what charges. At the end, Josef still doesn’t know, but is ashamed of having been arrested.
For a novel that starts at the end:
One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
First line: Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
Last line: Races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.
This is a great example of the one-sentence prologue that gives away the end of the story, then drops back to the beginning to lead us through the journey to find out how the Colonel ended up in front of the firing squad. Notice that the title of the book is contained in that last sentence, which sums up the overall story.
Here are the opening and closing lines of two great novels by two of the greatest writers of all time. Years ago, I would read a novel by Hemingway, then a novel by Fitzgerald, then another by Hemingway, alternating between the two until I’d read them all (more than once, in most cases). Their styles couldn’t be more different.
The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
First line: He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.
Last line: The old man was dreaming about the lions.
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
First line: In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
Last line: So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Hemingway was a word economist. He could say so much with so few words in a sentence constructed in the simplest manner. He’s credited with the shortest short story:
FOR SALE: Baby shoes. Never used.
Fitzgerald, on the other hand, was the master of the more fluid, beautiful sentences, lengthy at times, with multiple clauses, sentences that would start you at one point and lead you through the moment, then turn completely around and end up in a different place than where you began, different from where you expected.
For one of my personal favorites:
The World According to Garp, John Irving
First Line: Garp’s mother, Jenny Fields, was arrested in Boston in 1942 for wounding a man in a movie theater.
Last Line: But in the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.
The first sentence reminds me a bit of the opening of Kafka’s The Trial—a straightforward statement of the inciting incident that sets the entire story into motion, and at the same time introduces the character and gives us some insight into that character. Not much—it’s only one sentence. But enough of a peek at the character to make us want to read the next sentence. The only thing any great sentence can do is make you want to read the next sentence. It also ends with the title of the story in the last sentence, like One Hundred Years of Solitude.
I don’t compare anything I’ve written to any of these masterful works of literature, but I’ll include a couple of mine anyway, just because.
First line: “Pancakes.” With that one word, I broke my silence of a dozen years.
Last line: “I only wish I could hear my Hannah’s voice.”
Carry Me Away:
First line: Finally, they painted these walls a different color.
Last line: Finally, I’m leaving footprints.
Yes, the repetition of ‘finally’ was intentional. In both of these novels, I’d written the last sentence long before I finished writing the novel. In Hannah’s Voice, in fact, the last sentence was the first sentence I wrote, and I never changed it.
So pick up your favorite novel or short story and read the first and last sentences. Or, if you’re a writer, pick up your own novel or short story or manuscript. Does that first sentence pull you in and make you want to read the second? Does the last sentence provide complete closure and resolution, even if it ends in an obvious cliffhanger that leads to a sequel?
If so, fantastic. Now, just check to see that there are a few thousand excellent sentences between those two.