Friday, February 01, 2013

A Strong First Paragraph

I recently picked up a copy of the revised edition of Jack's Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac by Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee, a superb collection of reminiscences by Jack Kerouac's contemporaries, given crystalline coherence by Gifford's and Lee's skillful narration.

The first paragraph of the Prologue (written by Barry Gifford) is beautifully worded. But before you look at it, imagine for a moment that you've been tasked with writing the first sentence of this book yourself. What would your strategy be? Would you try to say something about Jack Kerouac? Would you launch right into an explanation of how the book came to be? Or would you back up fifty paces and try to take in the larger picture?

Gifford backs up a hundred paces.

America makes odd demands of its fiction writers. Their art alone won't do. We expect them to provide us with social stencils, an expectation so firm that we often judge their lives instead of their works. If they declare themselves a formal movement or stand up together as a generation, we are pleased, because this simplifies the use we plan to make of them. If they oblige us with a manifesto, it is enforced with the weight of contract.

The opening sentence is an observation; a hypothesis.

It's a masterfully crafted paragraph, isn't it? Notice the way the sentences vary in length. The first sentence is appropriately short: eight words. The second, even shorter. Then we encounter a 23-word sentence. Then a 28-word sentence. And finally, 15 words. Can you hear the cadence this progression produces? Isn't it fabulous?

Notice how few words are reused. Can you spot the words that are used twice? They're short words: a, of, us, the, with, they, their. Is any word used more than twice?

Miraculously, we don't encounter the first occurrence of "the" until we're 56 words into the paragraph!

The coinage "social stencils" is unique and brilliant. A lesser writer would have written "social blueprints." But Gifford knows that "blueprints" is unimaginative, overused.

Think what a travesty it would be to defile a biography of Jack Kerouac with stale, overused metaphors.

Far be it for me to try to improve upon such a magnificent paragraph. If I were asked to do so, I could suggest perhaps two minor changes. First, change "America" to "History." Why? Because there's no reason at all to limit this discussion to America. The first sentence is an observation of universal importance. After you've changed "America" to "History" you can then get rid of "its," producing an opening sentence of: "History makes odd demands of fiction writers.

Quite possibly, I'd change the final sentence ("If they oblige us with a manifesto, it is enforced with the weight of contract") to "If they oblige us with a manifesto, so much the better." To me, "enforced with the weight of contract" sounds a bit legalese. "So much the better" is borderline-trite, but everyone understands it.

Then again I might not change anything. Gifford's paragraph is pretty much golden as is. If an English student ever showed me a paragraph like that, I'd gasp so hard all the air would be sucked out of the room.

As an exercise, I suggest you take a moment right now to go find whatever it was you last wrote that was more than a paragraph long. Re-read your piece. Is the opening paragraph golden as is? What would you change to make it better?


  1. You might want to fix the end of your 10th paragraph. I'm not sure I've ever heard of "fiction wirters".

  2. Duly fixed. Thanks for the heads up!

  3. Great piece! I'm going to send the link to my writing students.

    I like your edit suggestion of changing "America" to "History," but I prefer that the "its" remain because it gives the impression that America (or history) feels ownership of these writers and believes itself to have the right to impose requirements on their lives.

    Likewise for the last sentence. It sounds legal, but I think that might be the point. It's like, when someone writes a manifesto, we want to hold that person to it as thought it's a legal contract and they're not allowed to break it (i.e. rethink their own opinions/priorities).

    Thanks for posting and explaining so clearly what makes this paragraph effective!

  4. Great review and suggestion. I liked all your changes!

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