I think us here to wonder, myself. To wonder. To ask. And that in wondering bout the big things and asking bout the big things, you learn about the little ones, almost by accident. But you never know nothing more about the big things than you start out with. The more I wonder, he say, the more I love.
It’ll be no surprise to many of my readers what my first line choice is. I did go through all of my books this morning before choosing, but I kept coming back to this one.
I’ve probably written this in my journal a hundred times. It just opens the book so well. I am not sure there is a better first line that sets up the theme and tone of the book so well as the one Jane Austen wrote at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice.
Fiction allows us to slide into these other heads, these other places, and look out through other eyes. And then in the tale we stop before we die, or we die vicariously and unharmed, and in the world beyond the tale we turn the page or close the book, and we resume our lives.
Character descriptions are important in novels, because they form the picture in our minds of what the people in our stories look like, walk like, talk like, how they feel about things, etc etc etc. However, a good character description is such an integral part of the story, that you don’t even realize you’ve read it. The picture forms in your mind, without truly reading the individual words on the page. That’s how everyone knows exactly what Harry’s hair looks like (and why so many of us were confused when he wasn’t NEAR as messy in the movie).
This was another difficult one for me, when I saw the list because of that reason. Holy crap, how am I going to go back and find a character description in a book? I am going to have to dig!
But then, as I was reading The Grapes of Wrath, I came across Tom’s vision of his mother when he meets her in the kitchen for the first time in several years. I can’t say if it’s my favorite, but it definitely is very striking.
“Her hazel eyes seemed to have experienced all possible tragedy and to have mounted pain and suffering like steps into a high calm and a superhuman understanding. She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt and fear, she had practiced denying them in herself. And since, when a joyful thing happened, they looked to see whether joy was on her, it was her habit to build up laughter out of inadequate materials. But better than joy was calm. Imperturbability could be depended upon. And from her great and humble position in the family she had taken dignity and a clean calm beauty. From her position as healer, her hands had grown sure and cool and quiet; from her position as arbiter she had become as remote and faultless in judgment as a goddess. She seemed to know that if she swayed the family shook, and if she ever really deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall, the family will to function would be gone.”–John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
“We are very particular about details here,” she said coldly. “Colonel Carne says you never know when the most trivial fact may turn out to be vital.”
“Or the other way around,” I said, but she didn’t get it.
If you wind up boring yourself, you can pretty much bank on the fact that you’re going to bore your reader. I believe in keeping several plots going at once. The plot of a novel should be like walking down a busy city street: first there are all the other people around you, the dog walkers and the skateboarders, the couples fighting, the construction guys swearing and shouting, the pretty girl on teetering heels that causes those construction guys to turn around for a split second of silence. There are drivers hitting the brakes, diving birds slicing between buildings, and the sudden ominous clouds banking to the west. All manner of action and movement is rushing towards you and away. But that isn’t enough. You should also have the storefronts at street level, and the twenty stories of apartments full of people and their babies and their dreams. Below the street there should be infrastructure: water, sewer, electric. Maybe there’s a subway down there as well, and it’s full of people. For me, it took all of that to stay emotionally present for seven months of endless days. Many writers feel that plot is passé—they’re so over plot, who needs plot?—to which I say: Learn how to construct one first, and then feel free to reject it.
Ann Patchett, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage
Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave on any boy whose parents forced a ring up on her finger. Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband.