Wednesday, July 13, 2011

What's the purpose of the sixth sentence?

The Ultimate Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything is 42 (from the Hitchhikers' Guide to the Universe) - but what the heck does that mean? When it comes to the question of your own purpose in life, can anyone but you answer that question? But there are some things as writers that we can answer for sure: every sentence in our first chapter (or at least our first few pages), can and should have a very definite purpose.

This really hit home to me in this great post by Ann Meier hosted at Janice Hardy's writing blog. She talks about analyzing the first chapter of your favorite best-seller book in the same genre that you are writing in. Analyze it right down to the sentence level. Ann said because she is a kinesthetic learner, she took the time to retype the best-seller first chapter word for word.  I haven't got to the every word level, but I did recently do a sentence-by-sentence analysis of the first chapter of a YA book I very much admired, Jennifer Donnelly's A Northern Light. 

I learned a lot identifying the purpose of each sentence:
  1. First sentence: evocative setting that asks a question. "When summer comes to the North Woods, time slows down."  Why does time slow down?
  2. Second sentence: specific setting details: where (a resort on  a lake), when (1906)
  3. Third sentence: creates atmosphere, shows the character's take on the world and her place in it- "children of doctors and lawyers" - we get a sense (via showing, not telling) that the main character, Mattie, is a poor girl who works at a resort frequented by rich people
  4. Fourth sentence: characterization (with voice) and building tension: "I believe these things. With all my heart. For I am good at telling myself lies."
  5. Fifth sentence: building tension "Until Ada comes out and slips her hand in mine" "Any other time the manager's wife would have scorched our ears for standing idle, but not now"
  6. Sixth sentence: first dialogue, hint of disaster: "they've been dragging the lake"
  7. 7th - 9th sentence: more dialogue - emotional reaction to potential disaster "Mattie, I'm scared"
  8. 10 -12 th sentence: characterization via internal narrative "I don't answer her - words fail me sometimes. I've read almost every word in Websters New American dictionary... right now I want a word that describe the feeling you get when you know you'll never be the same person again... I imagine it's the same feeling Eve had after biting that apple..."
  9. next 10 sentences: dialogue, action: a girl's body has been discovered in the lake, Mattie is asked to make sure all the guests are out of the parlor before they bring the body in
  10. "save the cat" moment: an action that makes us identify with the main character and like her: Mattie remembers seeing the girl at the resort the day before, she remembers thinking the girl looked distraught, so she brought her a lemonade and didn't charge her for it
  11. next sentence: raises a dramatic question: Mattie blurts out "what about the man she was with?"
  12. next sentence: raising stakes, tension: the sheriff asks "Did you see something, Mattie?"
  13. next sentence: directly involves main character, presents an obstacle: "I don't hear him. Behind my eyes I see a packet of letters tied with pale blue ribbon, letters I promised to burn"
  14. next sentence: more questioning, tension: "Did you know something about what happened?"
  15. final sentence: leaves us with a unanswered question: "what had I seen? Too much. What did I know? - only that knowledge carries a damned high price. Miss Wilcox, my teacher, had taught me so much. Why had she never me taught me that?"
In Ann Meier's post, she identifies the same list of purposes for each sentence in the first chapter (though in a different order, of course - the sixth sentence doesn't HAVE to hint at a disaster!) The best-seller she used also had two other sentences with a distinct purpose:

  1. introduce a goal
  2. provoke laughter

The first chapter doesn't show that Mattie has any goal, but this does show up right away in the second chapter (and the first chapter is so short it's almost a sort of prologue). Her goal is to earn enough money to move to New York City to go to college - pretty daring for a poor country girl in 1906. That's why she's working at the fancy resort, to earn money. The girl's death, and the letters the girl gave her that may contain the clue to her death, have involved her in something big that may obstruct her goal.

Provoking laughter - probably not a necessary ingredient in the first chapter of a book that starts with high drama and a potential murder mystery.

This was a fascinating exercise and worth doing for other books too to see not only the purpose of each sentence but also to see how the author accomplished each of the crucial ingredients.

I bet analyzing other books would reveal a few more helpful ingredients for first chapters - if you know of any others please share!

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