Tag Archives: openings

Being Pathetic

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It was a dark and stormy …

“Pathetic fallacy” is an academic term that refers to the technique of ascribing human emotions to inanimate objects, usually to reflect a character’s mood. For example, say your protagonist falls in love: you might describe flowers laughing and trees waving their branches gleefully. Or perhaps there’s been a death, so the landscape looks bleak and with clouds brewing rain.

“Pathetic fallacy” was very popular with the Victorian novelists – I always think of Thomas Hardy when asked to give an example. Therein, however, lies the problem – “pathetic fallacy” is a little out of fashion nowadays. This demise of its popularity is partly due to the modern attention span. If you’ve ever read novels by the Brontes, Dickens, Elliot or Hardy – you’ll know all about lengthy landscape description and frankly, how dull it can be for modern readers. If you absolutely need to say how each field in the valley looked, then spread your descriptions out over the course of your work. Above all, as Elmore Leonard wrote, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

Another reason “pathetic fallacy” is no longer de rigueur in the literary world, is that it can seem cliché. For example, if your protag is heading home to see his wife and there’s a storm, and then they fight… your foreshadowing’s is derivative, predictable and boring.

Still, “pathetic fallacy” has its place in the literary toolbox. It can provide emphasis for mood. I suggest using it sparingly, with caution and avoid storm/argument, rain/depression, sunny days/falling-in-love clichés.

Personally, I like to turn PF on its head; let the trouble come in sunshine or make a storm a symbol of peace. If you use PF, surprise your reader with it.

Oh, and whatever you do, never open with a “pathetic fallacy” weather report. That’s the biggest cliché in the cliché box, it’s just pathetic …

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‘“Damn,” said the Duchess.’

The all important first line…

"Bang!" Grab your readers' attention.

 The titular quote here is attributed to Agatha Christie, though I am unable to identify which of her novels is thus launched. Regardless of its provenance, this line is arresting, or was in its day. “Damn” was a pretty raw word in 1920 or so, rarely uttered in front of ladies, not to mind say by one, and then one of high social standing. So, an opening line such as ‘“Damn,” said the Duchess’ was written to shock, to intrigue, to grab the readers’ attention.

If writing a book, make sure your first line is memorable, striking, the type that will hook and reel in your reader keen to find out more. Follow it by a seductive, pacy set of three chapters. They are also the showpiece you’ll be sending off to agents and publishers so best make sure they’re written to hook.

Some writers write their last chapter first, so they can figure out their plot, and then leave writing those all-important first few pages until last. In fact, the very last piece of writing they’ll do is the first line. Therefore, don’t fret over your opening, get the rest of your work down and come back to it later if necessary.

And, take note that just as your first line should reach out and grab your reader – your final line should linger with your reader for sometime afterwards…

 Can you guess which works gave us the following opening lines?

 

‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’

 

I’m writing this sitting in the kitchen sink.’

 

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’

 

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’

 

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.’

 

‘Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.’

 

‘Mother died today.’

 

‘It was the day my grandmother exploded.’

 

‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’


He – for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it – was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.’

 

‘They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did.’