SHAPE UP, MR. DICKENS!
C. Neuroticus Absolutus
The pundits of successful writing tell us to make the first sentences of our stories leap off the page and grab the reader’s attention. Consider Shultz’s character Snoopy’s novel which starts with, “It was a dark and stormy night,” a quote from the 1830 Bulwer-Lytton novel Paul Clifford. Make fun if you will, but is that beautiful or what? Only seven words to set the mood, the scene and to capture your interest.
Inspired by Snoopy, I’ve tried to write an introductory line with the same attention-grabbing impact. The best opening seven words I’ve ever penned are: “She had big tits. Really big tits!”
Kind of grabs you, doesn’t it?
J.M. De Long, on his Sparetimenovelist.netfirms.com website, advocates going through your manuscript and removing the intensifier very every time it appears. What drivel! Compare: “She has large breasts,” to “She has very large breasts.”
The first sentence describes a familiar sight: Large, but rather ho-hum breasts. The very in the second sentence—from my unpublished novel Bazoombas!—tells us there is something exceptional about these breasts. With these words the author reaches out from the page, snatches the reader’s attention and simultaneously provides a titillating image of the character’s attributes. I immediately want to know more about this character, especially her breasts. Is she proud of them? Apologetic? Are they perky? An obvious burden? Award-winning? The product of surgical augmentation? Do they hang below her waistline? Are they psychologically uplifting to her, or a depressing nuisance? What other unusual attributes does she have? Curvaceous hips? Long lithe legs? Buck teeth? Pattern baldness? Thick ankles? Halitosis? You’ve captured my attention. Quick! Tell me more!
Well, forget ho-hum breasts. It was the intensifier very that grabbed your attention, admit it!
Ed Sullivan said, “We’ve got a really big show!” Drop the really and substitute a stronger word, Browne and King (Self-editing for Fiction Writers) might advise. But it’s not “a big show,” a great show, or amazing, huge, brilliant, humongous, rhinocerine or even elephantine. . . it’s “a REALLY BIG show!”
No, thank you, Mr. De Long, I’ll keep my intensifying verys and reallys. They’re for those who wish to follow me on my imaginary adventures—and have fun along the way.
The opening lines from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (1859) are often quoted:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, 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.”
In Chapter 1 (titled Show and Tell), of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Brown and David King introduce the phrase “Resist the Urge to Explain,” and lovingly reduced it to its least common denominator: R.U.E. I suspect our linguistic authorities would say something like, “Get to the point, Mr. Dickens. Don’t tell. Show!” and might suggest, “Things were such a mess I just wanted to slice my wrists!” as an alternate.
“And for Pete’s sake, Mr. Dickens,” they might add, “get rid of that weak be verb was. Worse, you used it eleven times!” Verbs must be strong, bust you in the chops, keep you on the edge of your seat, our authorities insist. But I wonder how Browne and King would improve on Dickens’, “Marley was dead . . .” without raising the word count or inserting a bunch of adverbs and adjectives that will only get in the way of conveying a simple fact: “Marley was dead.” A be verb followed by a past participle? The dreaded passive voice! Tsk, tsk, Mr. Dickens, where’s the action?
What if I just want a quiet read in my old wingback in front of the fireplace, my slippered feet on an ottoman? Many mature readers still like whodunits with detectives who use their brains instead of Aston Martins upgraded with MI6’s latest 007 spy package, or Israeli Uzis, karate chops, 9 mm Austrian Glocks or Japanese ninja stars. Imagine:
- Miss Marple at the wheel of the 1968 Mustang GT 390 fastback in the famous Bullit auto chase
- Perry Mason bedding Della Street in the presidential suite at the Hyatt
- Nick and Nora Charles as they duke it out with the Chinese mob ala Bruce Lee as Asta chews on Jet Li’s ankle (Oh, crap! I just used the deadly as construction—twice!—and buried the action in dependent clauses!)
- Joe Friday not getting the facts
- Or Sherlock Holmes waiting for the results of a DNA analysis (“It’s elementary, my dear Watson!”)
Many of us still like humanly fallible characters with humorous quirks, imperfect bodies and lack the slightest inkling of super powers. Besides, all that constant action wears us out!
As for removing the ly adverbs from your writing as Browne and King propose, I suggest they check out the work of one of the best-selling fiction authors of all time: J. K. Rowling, whose liberal use of adverbs must drive Browne and King mad. Bless billionaire Rowling for ignoring the conventional wisdom and writing a series so enjoyable that literally millions of children became avid readers, if only for seven delicious volumes. Through these young readers adverbs might live on in our lexicon.
For the rest of us hopeful scribes and scribblers, be careful where you get your advice, especially if it stimulates your olfactory nerves with aromas reminiscent of third-world lack of plumbing.
As for you, Mr. Dickens, shape up!