Instructively Good Writing

Unlike my other ongoing series Instructively Bad Writing, which concentrates on opening paragraphs of books that don’t quite hit the mark, this series will deconstruct some of my favorite openers to see if I can figure out what they did right and how I can learn to make my writing better.

I’m going to start with one of my favorite opening paragraphs of all time, from the crazy brilliant Patrick DeWitt and his novel The Sisters Brothers

Sisters Brothers


I was sitting outside the Commodore’s mansion, waiting for my brother Charlie to come out with news of the job.  It was threatening to snow and I was cold and for want of something to do I studied Charlie’s new horse, Nimble.  My new horse was called Tub.  We did not believe in naming horses but they were given to us as partial payment for the last job with the names intact, so that was that.  Our unnamed previous horses had been immolated, so it was not as though we did not need these new ones but I felt we should have been given money to purchase horses of our own choosing, horses without histories and habits and names they expected to be addressed by.  I was very fond of my previous horse and lately had been experiencing visions while I slept of his death, his kicking, burning legs, his hot-popping eyeballs.  He could cover sixty miles in a day like a gust of wind and I never laid an hand on him except to stroke him or clean him, and I tried not to think of him burning up in that barn but if the vision arrived uninvited how was I to guard against it?  Tub was a healthy enough animal but would have been better suited to some other, less ambitious owner.  He was portly and low-backed and could not travel more than fifty miles in a day.  I was often forced to whip him, which some men do not mind doing and which in fact some enjoy doing, but which I do not like to do; and afterward he, Tub, believed me cruel and thought to himself, Sad life, sad life.


There is so much that Patrick DeWitt does right.  Let’s break it down:

  • A unique, authorial voice.  This isn’t a paint-by-numbers opening, it’s descriptive, funny, weirdly grotesque and a very long paragraph to muse over the problem of a new horse.  You know exactly what you’re getting with this book after this paragraph.
  • The humor is dry enough to start forest fires.  Consider these wonderful lines:
    • Names they expected to be addressed by
    • his kicking, burning legs, his hot-popping eyeballs
    • which some men do not mind doing and which in fact some enjoy doing, but which I do not like to do
  • Everything you need to know about the main character is in this paragraph.  He is simultaneously slow and methodical in his thoughts, ramming through ideas in a straight, linear line, but also is educated with a formal way of talking.   He is both melancholy (if visions arrived uninvited how was I to guard against it?) and sensitive, yet contains a pragmatically ruthless streak (I was often forced to whip him)
  • We know what kind of lives these men lead as Eli thinks about their previous horses dying in a barn fire.

This is exactly how to start a book.

Let’s really break it down:


I was sitting outside the Commodore’s mansion, waiting for my brother Charlie to come out with news of the job.  It was threatening to snow and I was cold and for want of something to do I studied Charlie’s new horse, Nimble

There is so much we learn from these two lines.  The use of the word “Commodore” places the novel at a very specific point in time.  The fact that Eli (the main character) did not go into the mansion with his brother establishes their relationship (his brother is the “brains” of the operation).

The term “for want of something to do” also introduces the unique authorial style that will be used through the book

My new horse was called Tub.  We did not believe in naming horses but they were given to us as partial payment for the last job with the names intact, so that was that.

It never occurs to Eli to simply not call the horses by their names.  It’s another brilliant way of telling you who this character is.  He is smart enough to have fairly philosophic musings about the nature of a horse, while simultaneously being so single minded in his thinking that he never realizes he doesn’t need to call the horses by their names if he doesn’t want to.

Our unnamed previous horses had been immolated, so it was not as though we did not need these new ones but I felt we should have been given money to purchase horses of our own choosing, horses without histories and habits and names they expected to be addressed by.

“Our unnamed previous horses had been immolated”.  I’d trade years of my life to be able to craft a sentence like that.  Again, you learn so much about Eli from this simple line.  You get the sense about how jarringly literal he is.

I was very fond of my previous horse and lately had been experiencing visions while I slept of his death, his kicking, burning legs, his hot-popping eyeballs

His hot-popping eyeballs.

He could cover sixty miles in a day like a gust of wind and I never laid an hand on him except to stroke him or clean him, and I tried not to think of him burning up in that barn but if the vision arrived uninvited how was I to guard against it? 

Now we get a sense of the melancholy that surrounds Eli and his odd poetic streak.

Tub was a healthy enough animal but would have been better suited to some other, less ambitious owner.  He was portly and low-backed and could not travel more than fifty miles in a day.  I was often forced to whip him, which some men do not mind doing and which in fact some enjoy doing, but which I do not like to do; and afterward he, Tub, believed me cruel and thought to himself, Sad life, sad life.

We pick up more details about Eli from this description.  We learn he’s “ambitious” and routinely does more than fifty miles a day with his horse.  We learn about his practical side that competes with his sensitive side.

And he cares very much what his horse thinks of him, another fascinating window into the character


 

I wouldn’t change a single word in this opener.  Patrick DeWitt is brilliant and this shows how powerful a unique voice can be when starting a Novel.



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