Treat Your Reader with the Golden Rule
I have written at least once sentence a day for the last fifteen days. This alone is no major accomplishment. I’m guessing most people I know write at least one sentence per day, whether fiction, non-fiction, email, tweet or text. Even the president writes a sentence a day. We all write words and we all string those words into sentences.
What makes it special is that each of these fifteen sentences is a) meant to be the opening sentence of a longer work and b) inspired by the (in)famous Bulwer-Lytton sentence.
Looking back on these fifteen opening sentences, there’s a continual theme in which ones I find good and which one I find disappointing, weak, boring, or just plain bad. The good ones are the ones when I want to know what comes next. The bad ones are the ones when I don’t.
I don’t meant this only as a statement about plot. That’s part of it, but not the whole thing. Style is also a factor, as are hints of character and setting.
What it comes down to is this: some of these are sentences where I want to write what’s next. Others, I don’t.
It brings me back to the Golden Rule, that childhood paradigm that we should treat others the way we want to be treated.
The Golden Rule of Writing
If I don’t want to write what’s next, then why should the reader want to read what’s next?
Consider the original Bulwer-Lytton sentence. It’s so long-winded, so exhausting, so obsessed with the sky and the storms that I have zero interest in finding out what comes next. Like Bartleby, I’d prefer not to.
For the other end of the spectrum, consider some of the best opening sentences. Ishmael introducing himself, Carraway reflecting on the lessons his father taught him, Jake Barnes describing Robert Cohn’s boxing style, Jane Austen describing the desires of men and women.
Or, my very favorite, the first paragraph of Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence:
Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.
Beautiful writing, yes, with each sentence throwing you into the next. No characters, no story, no plot, no physical description. No clear setting whatsoever. For all we know, this tragic age could be ancient Rome or frontier America or colonized Mars. Further down the page, we learn what this tragic, post-cataclysm setting is the smoky Midlands of England in the aftermath of the first world war, and that the central characters are Clifford and Constance Chatterley. But at the beginning, we only know that we have a philosophizing author describing life among the ruins.
Perhaps the above passage by Lawrence didn’t do much for you. Not every sentence is written for every person. But that is the rule, the Golden Rule, that I think all writers should follow and many do not: write a sentence you want to read, a sentence that makes you want to keep writing.
Of course, Neil Gaiman has a piece of advice that is always worth returning to. He says that it always comes down to the same four words: “...and then what happened?”
If you don’t want to know what happens next, as the writer, then why should the reader?