Friday, November 2, 2012

Powerful Opening Words: Tana French's 2007 Novel, In the Woods

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In the few book clubs I’ve been part of, I’ve often heard a fellow reader heap praise upon a book because of the opening words, the beginning sentences. You know the ones I mean: the ones that pull you in.

In this post, I’d like to share a few opening words, some that I have savored, some that made me smile, glad to begin a friendship with the author. I’d also like to share why I think the selected words are so masterful, testaments to the author’s excellent craft.

First, from Tana French’s award-winner, In the Woods:

Picture a summer stolen whole from some coming-of-age film set in small-town 1950s. This is none of Ireland’s subtle seasons mixed for a connoisseur’s palate, watercolor nuances within a pinch-sized range of cloud and soft rain; this is summer full-throated and extravagant in a hot pure silkscreen blue. This summer explodes on your tongue tasting of chewed blades of long grass, your own clean sweat, Marie biscuits with butter squirting through the holes and shaken bottles of red lemonade picnicked in tree houses. In tingles on your skin with BMX wind in the face, ladybug feet up your arm; it packs every breath full of mown grass and billowing wash lines; it chimes and fountains with birdcalls, bees, leaves and football-bounces and skipping-chants, ‘one! Two! Three!’ This summer will never end. It starts every day with a shower of Mr. Whippy notes and your best friend’s knock at the door, finishes it with long slow twilight and mothers silhouetted in doorways calling you to come in, through the bats shrilling among the black lace trees. This is Everysummer decked in all its best glory. (Prelude, Into the Woods by Tana French)

If you haven’t already visited your favorite online book site to order this 2007 novel by Tana French, you must own it already. The flavor of this particular paragraph persuades me to read on. Here are a few reasons:

First, author Tana French makes use of alliteration to emphasize key words and enhance the rhythms of language. Consider the use of words beginning with an “s” (in bold font above): summer stolen some set small subtle seasons sized soft summer silkscreen summer sweat squirting skin skipping summer starts slow silhouetted.

The eye and ear note the presence of a repeated sound that now takes on greater significance. Our minds hit the sound like a hand upon the drum, and the rhythm underscores a mood, an atmosphere being created. We feel the presence of summer, a word repeated four times, five if you count the second half of an invented word, Everysummer. We feel the lazy ease of summer in words such as soft and slow. We feel summer is a comfortable sweater wrapped around us.

Second, French makes use of words beginning with “b” for a different effect:

Picture a summer stolen whole from some coming-of-age film set in small-town 1950s. This is none of Ireland’s subtle seasons mixed for a connoisseur’s palate, watercolor nuances within a pinch-sized range of cloud and soft rain; this is summer full-throated and extravagant in a hot pure silkscreen blue. This summer explodes on your tongue tasting of chewed blades of long grass, your own clean sweat, Marie biscuits with butter squirting through the holes and shaken bottles of red lemonade picnicked in tree houses. In tingles on your skin with BMX wind in the face, ladybug feet up your arm; it packs every breath full of mown grass and billowing wash lines; it chimes and fountains with birdcalls, bees, leaves and football-bounces and skipping-chants, ‘one! Two! Three!’ This summer will never end. It starts every day with a shower of Mr. Whippy notes and your best friend’s knock at the door, finishes it with long slow twilight and mothers silhouetted in doorways calling you to come in, through the bats shrilling among the black lace trees. This is Everysummer decked in all its best glory. (Prelude, Into the Woods by Tana French)

Whereas the alliterative s-words flow throughout the paragraph, the alliterative b-words tend to dominate in the middle of the paragraph where French has packed diction and detail that appeal to the senses. First is the taste of summer: blades of . . . grass, clean sweat, biscuits with butter, and bottles of . . . lemonade. Second is the texture or feel of summer: BMX wind and ladybug feet tingle on . . . skin. Third is the scent of summer: mown grass and wash hanging on the line. Finally, French conveys the sounds of summer: birdcalls, bees, ball bounces and chants. These chime, and in an unusual use of fountain, most often used as a noun, French suggests that those sounds fountain or flow constantly up, adding to the energy implied in the word, summer. The paragraph closes with a touch of the ominous, with things that make the woods, at night, threatening: the sounds of bats speeding through black lace trees.

One reviewer, using the online name “switterbug,” describes French’s style as being “literary, layered, full of allusion, and linguistically lush.” I agree (and acknowledge that the reviewer has used a bit of alliteration him--or her--self).  Such lush language invited me in to the world invented by French and promised that I would enjoy the journey. I did.

Next Week, November 9, 2012, Opening Words by Kevin Peters in The Yellow Birds, a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award for Fiction.

Reading Challenge:

Read Tana French’s In the Woods or another Tana French novel.

Writing Challenge:

Describe a season, using the same techniques that French employs. Write quickly, then begin to rewrite, changing words and phrases to achieve an alliterative effect and appeal to the senses.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

Tried and true writing advice includes a prohibition against repetition, but repeating a word exactly or in a different form serves style very well when used mindfully and sparingly. Consider Tana French’s use of the word, summer. It appears five times in a short passage without seeming redundant or repetitive. One reason is that the uses are parallel; each follows a verb, most often the linking verb is. And parallel constructions are powerful. They emphasize ideas, and they focus our minds upon the message.