Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Power of Words (Part 1)

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."

Try to start your novel like that and I guarantee you that in whatever writing group you belong to, the people will start going crazy. "It doesn't make sense," "those two things can't be true at the same time," and of course, "it doesn't pop. You should start your first scene with some kind of action."

Clearly, this is the opening of A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens. Not only does that opening work, it's one of the most recognizable out of the 168 million+ published novels out there. And Charles Dickens didn't even stop there. The first paragraph (and it's a long one) repeats that contradictory format. In fact, if you keep reading, you'll see that the opening isn't contradictory at all. Instead, it sets up the theme of the book perfectly. Charles Dickens articulated the feelings prior to the French Revolution in a way that few (if any) have done better.

Some consider Dickens rather verbose. And they may be right, but if I were being paid per word, I think I would want to stretch my sentences as well. However, that doesn't take away from the fact that his words had impact. He was a master. Dickens knew just what to say and how to say it. There wasn't a wasted word in the bunch.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of writers out there who think that the admonition to be clear and concise means creating short, choppy sentences. Let's take a look at the whole paragraph from Dickens's work:

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way--in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."

That entire paragraph is one sentence. Let me repeat: one sentence. But who among us would dare think it needs to be changed? It is so completely opposite of how we think we are told to write, and yet, it is nothing but supremely beautiful. At first sight, this opening appeares completely meaningless. It doesn't set us up for the scene, it does not introduce the MC, and nothing is happening (where's the action??). But by the end of the book, we see just how impactful and perfect that opening is.

Charles Dickens, like all the masters before him and after him, shows us that writing is an artform. We are not just telling a story, we are weaving a tale. It must be beautiful as well as concise. Each single word that we put down must drive the story forward and contribute to the picture as a whole.

Our words have the power to create worlds in the minds of complete strangers. We must not take this lightly. If we want to be taken seriously at all in the publishing world, we must approach paper (or a computer screen) with the same solemn respect as any master has ever approached an outlet of his/her creativity.

Don't forget to check in on Friday when I will continue the series on The Power of Words.


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