I wish I could say I did all that on purpose

A post at Paradox World:

The first sentence of Rachel Neumeier’s novel, Tuyo, widens the view before narrowing it again: “Beside the coals of the dying fire, within the trampled borders of our abandoned camp, surrounded by the great forest of the winter country, I waited for a terrible death.” 

This is a sentence almost like a camera trick. First, we have a narrow focus: “Beside the coals of a dying fire.” Then, we back out to a slightly wider view: “within the trampled borders of our abandoned camp.” A campfire is a small circle. The borders of a camp is a larger one. Next, we zoom to a very high altitude view: “surrounded by the great forest of the winter country.” We’d need to move to a mountain top or a bird’s eye to see an entire forest or an entire country. Suddenly, the focus is very tight again: “I” – one person, one face. And last, “waited for a terrible death,” prepares us for a final fade to black. Neumeier has written a truly cinematic sentence. 

In another way, the sentence is dramatic rather than subtle. There are six words in the lexical field of death and endings: coals, dying, trampled, abandoned, winter, and death. 

So there are!

This is a wonderful analysis of this sentence. I only wish I could claim to have done all this on purpose.

Or maybe I don’t wish that. I suspect it’s probably less stressful to do it by feel than with analysis and intention.

While poking around on this blog, I found a bunch of posts about first sentences, all of which are thoughtful and insightful.

Here’s another one I feel like pulling out. I suspect lots of us have read it.

A January gale was roaring up the Channel, blustering loudly, and bearing on its bosom rain squalls whose big drops rattled loudly on the tarpaulin clothing of those among the officers whose duties kept them on deck.

Who recognized that one?

It’s the first Hornblower book. The analysis of this sentence is well worth reading.

The story begins in 1796, and the first sentence has some flavor of that time. Forester paid attention to the sound of the words. Notice the sets of alliteration (words that start with the same consonants): “blustering loudly, and bearing on its bosom,” “duties kept them on deck.” He repeated the word “loudly.” In the second phrase that contains it, “big drops rattled loudly” the strong beats of the rhythm (´, ´, ´-, ´-) thump like the raindrops do. The sentence lends itself to reading aloud, with varying rhythms and repeating sounds. 

Reading it aloud also makes it easier to understand. With only two commas in thirty-nine words, the sentence could use the vocal expression of a good reader to help group the words into meaning. 

By all means click through and read the whole thing.

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6 thoughts on “I wish I could say I did all that on purpose”

  1. I figured #2 was CS Forester, since it doesn’t sound like O’Brian. But I haven’t read Hormblower in many years; I reread one or two by O’Brian every summer.

  2. I just finished ‘Terciel and Elinor’, book 6 of Garth Nix’s Abhorsen series. It is a prequel to the first book, but is intended to be read later. I enjoyed the book immensely. The main character is a serious young woman who has memorized all (but one) of Charlotte Breakspear’s plays, and is determined to live her life to the fullest. The book is reminiscent of the poem “Do not go gentle into that good night”, as we know that Elinor is doomed to die violently at the time of her daughter Sabriel’s birth.

    I very much enjoyed figuring out the various Shakespeare titles, starting with the fairly obvious name of the book itself. Others include “The Court of the Sad Prince” (a comedy!), and “The Three Noble Sisters.”

  3. Off topic but important for non-NZ authors who’s books are in the New Zealand national library, so I’m copying this to all the author blogs I visit.
    The NZ government has decided to donate its overseas collection to the Internet Archive and put the onus on authors whose work is still under copyright to opt out. We have until 1 December to opt out. This is the page with the list and with what to do to opt out:

    If you go to this page, there’s a spreadsheet with the titles in question that you can download. Suggest sharing this with any authors you know who need to be concerned. The original poster passed this on to their literary agent and you might do the same.

  4. Terciel and Elinor is excellent as prequels go.

    (That is, as a story locked in by the events of the chronologically later books.)

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