Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Opening Salvos, Part One


Recent posts have briefly discussed beginnings and endings, and adverbs, adjectives and gerunds. This post is the first in a series that looks at the opening paragraphs of published books, and presents possible ways they could have been tightened, and thus made stronger or more active. Of course, the suggestions are from one person's perspective -- mine -- but I welcome discussion.

Note: I own copies of the books I will discuss, and enjoyed reading each one. That needs to be said, lest this series seem to smack of anything snarky. I have learned much from this exercise, a study in the craft of writing, and hope others will, too.

First, a version of the Robin Hood legend from the point of view of the Sheriff of Nottingham, In a Dark Wood by Michael Cadnum, begins thus:
The forest was quiet. Everything that was about to happen was far away, through the trees.

Geoffrey stood still, staring straight ahead, although he could see nothing but trembling patches of sunlight on the fallen leaves. A forest was like night. It was a different world, and everything a man was afraid of lived there, afraid of nothing.

The boar spear was a long, heavy weapon, and this particular spear had never been used before. Its head was slender and very sharp, and the cross-piece midway down the shaft was gleaming black. Geoffrey found a new grip on the spear, the iron cold where he had not touched it, and the horns of the beaters, and their cries, filtered through the trees, bright curls of sounds, like shavings on a goldsmith's bench.

Between them and where he stood was the most dangerous kind of beast. It could feel no pain. Its eyes were fire pricks. It weighed more than three men.

And it was coming his way.
Okay, so what's weak about this beginning? It mingles description with action, and it's intriguing -- excellent -- but is also has eleven uses of was and one use of were, passive verbs in an otherwise tense scene. Passive verbs have their place, and can be poetic, as evidenced in the above passage, but they should be used sparingly.

Filtered is a cliched, too-modern word in this usage, and coming is weak. Very could be eliminated, as could this particular spear, if the sentence were reconstructed. Perhaps this is too spare, too direct, compared to the structure above, but it's my take on the same information:
New-forged, the boar spear -- a long, heavy weapon, its head slender and sharp -- had never been used, and the cross-piece gleamed black midway down the shaft.
I would have replaced filtered with echoed or drifted or rang, or something in keeping with "bright curls of sound" or the image of gold.

As for coming, what stronger word(s) might take its place, and thus evoke the image of a wild boar about to have its way with a mere human silly enough to hunt it down: running, charging, snorting, pawing, grunting, leaping, hurtling, et cetera?

Next post: a look at the opening paragraphs of a popular science fiction novel, a finalist for the Hugo. I'll catch sacrilege for that one, but I can take it!

9 comments:

The Texican said...

Where was the editor? Just kidding. Very nice illustration. Pappy

C. N. Nevets said...

At the risk of sounding like a grammar teacher, in almost every instance up there, the author employed was and were not as part of the passive voice ("he was smacked by the branch"), but as copulatives ("he was green").

I would argue that the mistake in this case is not overuse of the passive mood, but the dilution of tense action with a heap of purely descriptive sentences.

It's almost the same thing, but I'm feeling picky enough at the moment... lol

Alexander Field said...

You have like 12 or 13 sentences here and the verb "was" is used 11 times! That's simple overuse of a single word, not to mention it's an dull, uninspiring verb. The author should have been more creative with the opening, I agree; interesting book too, never heard of it. : )

Keanan Brand said...

Tex - I often ask the same question, but perhaps those authors had a certain aim in mind, and refused to be edited out of it. (shrug)

CN - Breaking out the big words, eh? (laugh) I'm all for passive voice or "was" when it's necessary, but -- as you said -- it dilutes the tension here.

Alex - Sometimes, repetition is useful for emphasis, parallel, or contrast (in oral tradition and folktales, and medieval minstrelsy, repetition is an honored storytelling technique), but that's obviously not the case here. Verbs are our friends!

I ordered this book on the recommendation of other readers, but almost sent it back. It's not an easy read in its subject matter, and there are passages throughout that could use an edit, but I'm glad I stuck around till the end. It's an interesting take on a legend.

Anonymous said...

Here is my inexperienced attempt at improvement:


In the stillness of the forest the impending tumult was afar off through the wood.

Geoffrey stood still, staring straight ahead, although he could see only trembling patches of sunlight on fallen leaves. A forest, like night, was a different world. Everything a man feared lived there, afraid of nothing.

The long heavy boar spear and its slender sharp head had yet to be tested. The cross-piece gleamed black midway down the shaft. Geoffrey found a new grip on the spear, the iron cold where he had not touched it, and the horns of the beaters, and their cries, echoed through the trees, bright curls of sound, like shavings on a goldsmith's bench.

Between them and where he stood stalked the most dangerous kind of beast. It could feel no pain. It weighed more than three men.

And it was hurtling his way.


I borrowed a bit from your suggestions.

Bubba

Anonymous said...

OOPS! I left out a sentence.

Its eyes fire pricks.

Oh, well. So much for improvement.

Bubba

Keanan Brand said...

Bubba! Thanks for weighing in on this.

"Echoed" and "hurtling" and "stalked" -- much stronger than mere "was".

If verbs are our friends, so are thesauri.

So, brother mine, when are you going to join me in this writing gig? Hm?

Jade Smith said...

Some of our discussions lately have opened my eyes to favorite books that, darn it, have got some problems.
One I recently read had an action scene with somebody throwing their dead enemy off a rooftop. Then the author went on to say, "The body fell of its own accord." Well, it would, wouldn't it, because it was thrown over?;)
Thanks for explaining the passive voice(maybe the editors won't have to gripe at me again for using it too much, now), and I liked "Bubba's" improvements on the text!

Keanan Brand said...

Jade - And how about those sentences with POV problems, like "He closed his eyes, and didn't see the dagger aiming straight for his heart."

Uh. Yeah.

Either he closes his eyes and doesn't see, or he opens those eyes and watches the dagger plummet toward his chest.

Third-person limited has its -- limitations.