Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Classical Greats vs Prolific Moderns; How Does Your First Measure Up?

I roamed the aisles of adult fiction at the library and then at Barnes and Noble, randomly selecting titles of classical and modern writers whose success has made them household names. I did give attention to publication dates in order to have a decent representation of novels throughout the decades.

With the emergence of genre fiction, maybe writing has become more commercialized. Or perhaps the shift is due to the fact that writers are forced to pull in agents and editors (as well as potential readers) with a first sentence that cuts directly to the point. No more time for elaborate sentences and elegant words that can paint all sorts of meaning.

Look at the dates. Read the first lines. Compare how your first line measures up. See if you notice the shift.


Classical Greats vs Prolific Moderns


1818: “Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch-Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs, changed naturally into pity and contempt, as he turned over the almost endless creations of the last century—and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed—this was the page at which the favourite volume always opened: ‘Elliot of Kellynch-Hall.”—Jane Austen, Persuasion.

1826: “It was a feature peculiar to the colonial wars of North America, that the toils and dangers of the wilderness were to be encountered before the adverse hosts could meet.”—James F. Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans.

1851: “Call me Ishmael.”—Herman Melville, Moby Dick.

1859: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the edge 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 evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”—Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities.

1873-1877: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”—Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina.

1897: “3 May. Bistritz.—Left Munich at 8:35 p.m., on 1st May, arriving at the Vienna early next morning; should have arrived at 6:46, but train was an hour late.”—Bram Stoker, Dracula.

1925: “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”—F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.

1929: “In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.” --Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms.

1939: “To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.”—John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath.

1959: “Everyone now knows how to find the meaning of life within himself.”—Kurt Vonnegut, The Sirens of Titan

1961: “The final dying sounds of their dress rehearsal left the Laurel Players with nothing to do but stand there, silent and helpless, blinking out over the footlights of an empty auditorium.”—Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road.

1976: ““I see…” said the vampire thoughtfully, and slowly he walked across the room towards the window.”—Anne Rice, Interview with the Vampire.

1977: “”I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one. Or at least as close as we’re going to get.””—Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game.

1979: “The band of carolers huddled at the corner, stamping their feet and swinging their arms, their young voices penetrating the cold night air between the harsh sounds of automobile horns and police whistles and the metallic strains of Christmas music blaring from storefront speakers.”—Robert Ludlum, The Matarese Circle.

1984: “Captain First Rank Marko Ramius of the Soviet Navy was dressed for the Arctic conditions normal to the Northern Fleet base at Polyarnyy.”—Tom Clancy, The Hunt for Red October.

1990: “The tropical rain fell in drenching sheets, hammering the corrugated roof of the clinic building, roaring down the metal gutters, splashing on the ground in a torrent.”—Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park. (Prologue)

1994: “”Cat, wake up! We have a heart!””—Sandra Brown, Charade.

1996: “”We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them.””—George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones. (Prologue)

1997: “I was arrested in Enoc’s diner.”—Lee Child, The Killing Floor.

1998: “James Lassiter was forty years old, a well-built, ruggedly handsome man in the prime of his life, in the best of health.”—Nora Roberts, The Reef. (Prologue)

2000: “Bartholomew Lampion was blinded at the age of three, when surgeons reluctantly removed his eyes to save him from fast-spreading cancer, but although eyeless, Barty regained his sight when he was thirteen.”—Dean Koontz, From the Corner of his Eye.

2001: “I’d been waiting for the vampire for years when he walked into the bar.”—Charlaine Harris, Dead Until Dark.

2001: “Sundown had bloodied the horizon over the uneven rooftops of South Boston.”—James Patterson, Cradle and All.

2003: “Renowned curator Jacques Sauniere staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s  Grand Gallery.”—Dan Brown, The Davinci Code.

2004: “When I was little, the great mystery to me wasn’t how babies were made, but why.”—Jodi Picoult, My Sister’s Keeper.

2004: “Please, Tavi,” wheedled the girl in the predawn darkness outside the Steadholt’s kitchen.”—Jim Butcher, Furies of Calderon. (Prologue)

2007: “She did not dare turn up any of the lamps for fear that some passerby would notice the light and remember it later when the police came around asking questions.”—Amanda Quick, The River Knows. (Prologue)

2011: “I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror.”—E.L. James, Fifty Shades of Grey.

2012: “Barry Fairbrother did not want to go out to dinner.”—J.K. Rowling, A Casual Vacancy.

2013: “Squeak.”—John Sanford, Silken Prey.

The following I think are worth a mention. Maybe not household names, but their novels have gained critical acclaim and were bestsellers.

2006: “I wish Giovanni would kiss me.”—Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat Pray Love.

2009: “It started as an accident.”—Janice Y.K. Lee, The Piano Teacher.

2011: “In my earliest memory, my grandfather is bald as a stone and he takes me to see the tigers.”—Tea Obreht, The Tiger’s Wife.

2012: “When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.”—Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl.

So what do you think? How do modern writers compare with the classical greats? How does your first line measure up? Post the first line of your novel in the comments section below. 

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