Saturday, January 14, 2017

What makes this great beginning great?

Here's how Lester Dent opens Chapter Three of his 1956 novel Honey in His Mouth:
"The hospital was as noisy a place as Harsh had ever been in."
To my mind that's one of the best opening sentences ever. Do you agree? If so, why? Disagree? If so, why?

© Peter Rozovsky 2017

Labels: , ,

20 Comments:

Blogger Art Taylor said...

OK... I'm gonna bite, if only from curiosity. The sentence doesn't stand out to me as remarkable in any way. What about it stands out to you? (I haven't read the book, I should stress--not sure if context has any bearing on your evaluation of the sentence.)

January 14, 2017  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I Nay have left out an important bit of context--again. The point-of-view character is a patient at the hospital. Does that do anything for you?

January 15, 2017  
Blogger Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Peter, I can't say that's the "best opening sentence ever" but I can picture Harsh walking into a chaotic OPD or Emergency section of the hospital. I often come across very good opening lines and it's hard for me to pick any one or even two.

January 15, 2017  
Blogger Elgin Bleecker said...

Peter – I will have to disagree that this is a great sentence, but will say that it is a true sentence. Hospitals can be pretty damn noisy. Ironic, since sleep is one of the things the patients really need.

January 15, 2017  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Prashant: Every time I put up
a post like this, someone will post a comment that reminds me that I need to provide greater context. My reply to Elgin, which I plan to post shortly, will make my meaning clearer, I hope.

January 15, 2017  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...



Elgin and Art, here's why I like the passage so much. The point-of-view character is a con man recovering consciousness in a hospital where he has landed after he caused a crash that killed his pursuer. He is recovering in a room that appears to be private, and not in an emergency room or open ward or some other part of a hospital where commotion could reasonably be expected. The reader will know all this by the time he or she gets to the opening of Chapter Three.

Now keep in mind the old cartoon gags about some character creating a ruckus right below a sign marked "Quiet: Hospital Zone" or a manic chase that suddenly slows down and goes quiet when it passes under a sign, or some character threatening to bang a gong under such a sign. The variants are endless. Those "Quiet: Hospital Zone" signs are less common than they used to be when I was a kid, but they used to be everywhere, and presumably were everywhere in 1956, when the novel appeared. Dent wrote for a readership that would immediately have associated the ideas "hospital" and "quiet," so his chapter opener is a clever bit of playing against readers' expectations that would presumably have made readers sit up and take notice.

Think of every scene you've read in which a character slowly recovers consciousness in a hospital room and sees the dim white shapes of the the nurses' uniforms, smells the medicinal smells, and all the cliched crap. Dent found a small but brilliant way to do something different with a conventional but necessary scene.

January 15, 2017  
Blogger Elgin Bleecker said...

Ah-ha! Now I get it. Sorry to be the guy who needs the joke explained to him.

January 15, 2017  
Blogger Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Thanks for the explanation, Peter. I see your point. I usually take opening lines at their face value and seldom connect them with what follows, unless it's specific to the story/plot as in this case.

January 15, 2017  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elgin: If everybody needs the joke explained, the teller had provided insufficient context. I'll try to remember that the next time I put a question to readers. Thanks.

January 15, 2017  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Prashant, that's a good way to think about opening lines, possibility the only sensible way. But this line opened the novel's third chapter. The reader already has the context to appreciate the line, context my post failed to provide.

January 15, 2017  
Blogger Art Taylor said...

Good conversation here (catching up), and yes, the context does make a difference.

I think I was thinking of it as others here might have been--thinking of those lists I've seen of famous first lines, opening lines whose prose or images or ideas grab you without any context (yet) and then often deepen on reflection as you discover additional layers of meaning. Those can be simple ones, of course. "Call me Ishmael" is stark and simple but deepens as you dive further into the question of the narrator's identity, and then there's "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," of course, and the more self-consciously ornate openers too:

"When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon."

Lots more to pick from my own first thoughts and perennial favorites ("Stately, plump Buck Mulligan" always stands out too), but what I'm saying is in the context of some of those--and without the context of the larger storyline in this book--this one didn't grab me in the same way.

But your explanation of what it grabbed you did indeed shed some insight on why it's working. And in any case, I do so appreciate the conversation generally--fun to talk about!

January 16, 2017  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I knew someone would quote the opening of "The Last Good Kiss" if this discussion went on long enough. I found its self-consciousness so off-putting that I read no further in the novel. I suspect that people sometimes quote it without having read the book (though I obviously don't include you in that group). I much prefer that other fixture on lists of great crime-fiction openings, that of Chandler's "Red Wind," though its inclusion on such a list makes me want to grab the list-maker by the collar and shout: "Tell me something I don't know!"

I wonder how many people who quote the opening to "Tale of Two Cities" remember the paragraph's last lines. And look up the first two words of "Hamlet" if you don't know them offhand.

A memorable opening line is both an independent unit and part of a larger whole. Dent's line will never make it into Bartlett's, but as a solution to what has to be an author's fundamental question ("How do I get the reader to keep reading?"), it deserves a place on lists of excellent opening lines.

January 16, 2017  
Blogger Art Taylor said...

Yep, Peter: The opening to The Last Good Kiss has been quoted so much that I almost hesitated to post it myself--and Red Wind's opening too, which is also one of my favorites, I have to admit. But I think your assessment of what makes for a memorable opening line is right on target. And again, a good conversation here, that's the important thing!

January 16, 2017  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And yes, this discussion is great fun, so much more enjoyable than just reading or compiling a list.

January 16, 2017  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

How about when we reign as joint kings of the world we decree that no one may include Crumley's or Chandler's openings on a list without providing, in writing, satisfactory reasons for doing so?

January 16, 2017  
Blogger Art Taylor said...

Agreed, Peter!

And I thought of another favorite opening line that's a favorite and not quoted as often, I don't think:

"Thundershowers hit just before midnight, drowning out the horn honks and noisemaker blare that usually signalled New Year's on the Strip, bringing 1950 to the West Hollywood Substation in a wave of hot squeals with meat wagon backup."

January 16, 2017  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And how about "It was a wandering daughter job"?

January 16, 2017  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

James Ellroy, one of the earlier novels in The L.A. Quarter?

January 16, 2017  
Blogger Art Taylor said...

Yep: Big Nowhere--one of my own favorites of his.

And love the Hammett quote, of course--a classic indeed!

January 16, 2017  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Art: You might find some interesting nuggets in my previous posts about opening lines: http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/search/label/first%20lines I include examples not just from fiction other than crime, but also from at least one historian. For that matter, how about Gibbon's opening paragraph to The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire? This will give one a clue the sort of cadences a young Dickens may have absorbed:

"In the second century of the Christian Aera, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valor. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence: the Roman senate appeared to possess the sovereign authority, and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of government. During a happy period of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines. It is the design of this, and of the two succeeding chapters, to describe the prosperous condition of their empire; and after wards, from the death of Marcus Antoninus, to deduce the most important circumstances of its decline and fall; a revolution which will ever be remembered, and is still felt by the nations of the earth. "

January 16, 2017  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home