Thursday, December 8, 2005

....a memorable and poignant sentence

A few weeks ago, my wife announced that she had begun working on a novelization of one of her screenplays; the topic came up when we were at my parent’s house for dinner. According to the general rules of screenwriting, one page of screenplay equals one minute of filming. Because screenplays are seldom over one hundred twenty pages and the typical novel is about four hundred pages; I asked how her writing was coming along. She responded by saying she had spent the morning reading.  She said that she used the time to sample the first sentence or paragraph in books of a number of writers that she admired.  This immediately launched a conversation about the importance of writing an attention getting, profound or witty first line.  And one of the first opening sentences from a novel we all deferred to was:

“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 age of despair, 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.”
- Charles Dickens, Tale of Two Cities

While Dickens’s first line is close to a paragraph, I found that by sampling some of the books in my office that length isn’t the determining factor for a memorable and poignant sentence.  The following is a random selection from authors and numerous topics: fiction, nonfiction, classics, contemporary, business, theology, self-help, etc. Some lines have been lifted from other sources and some may be a bit misleading because of their extraction from the introductory paragraphs, while others clearly stand on their own merits. The quotes are limited to the first sentence and no more.  Feel free to add your own quotes in the comments.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
- Joan Didion, The White Album

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
- George Orwell, 1984

“Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church.”
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

“How do you tell the story of your life—of how you were born, and the world you were born into, and the world that was born in you?”
- Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey

“Life is difficult”
- M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled

“When you go to confession on Saturday night, you go into a warm, dimly lit vastness, with the smell of wax and incense in the air, the smell of burning candles, and if it is a hot summer night there is the sound of a great electric fan, and the noise of the streets coming in to emphasize the stillness.”
- Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness

“On my forty-ninth birthday, I decided that all of life was hopeless, and I would eat myself to death.”
- Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith

“Wonder is the gateway to knowledge.”
- Sankara Saranam, God without Religion

- Caroline Knapp, Drinking: A Love Story

“My life is a mess.”
- Michael Yaconelli, Messy Spirituality

“Now in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A and of the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world I came to myself in a grove of young pines and the question came to me: has it happened at last?”
- Walker Percy, Love in the Ruins

“When millions of people will go anywhere, bear any burden, and pay any cover price to ‘feel good about myself,’ you know that the unconquerable worm is doing his thing in the Republic of Nice.”
- Florence King, With Charity Toward None: A Fond Look at Misanthropy

“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”
- A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy

“My name is Asher Lev, the Asher Lev, about who you have read in newspapers and magazines, about whom you talk so much at your dinner affairs and cocktail parties, the notorious and legendary Lev of the Brooklyn Crucifixion.”
- Chaim Potok, My Name is Asher Lev

“Twenty years ago at a conference I attended of theologians and professors of religion, an Indian Christian friend told the assembly, “We are going to hear about the beauties of several traditions, but that does not mean that we are going to make a fruit salad.”
- Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Budda, Living Christ

“There was once a velveteen rabbit, and in the beginning he was really splendid.”
- Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit

“Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned: the dynamics of faith are the dynamics of man’s ultimate concern.”
- Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith

“Even in the flattest landscape there are passes where the road first climbs to a peak and then descends into a new valley.”
- Peter F. Drucker, The New Realities

“The impression forces itself upon one that men measure by false standards, that everyone seeks power, success, riches for himself and admires others who attain them, while undervaluing the truly precious things in life.”
- Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents

“No matter that men in their hundreds of thousands disfigured the land on which they swarmed, paved the ground with stones so that no green thing could grow, filled the air with the fumes of coal and gas, lopped back all the trees, and drove away every animal and every bird: spring was still spring, even in the town.”
- Leo Tolstoy, Resurrection

“Many of us feel that our faith has been stolen, and it’s time to take it back.”
- Jim Wallis, God’s Politics

“This book is about the liberation of the human heart from the tentacles of chaos and loneliness, and from those fears that provoke us to exclude and reject others.”
- Jean Vanier, Becoming Human

“I used to think that young Americans began whatever education they were to get at the age of eighteen, that their early lives were spiritually empty and that they arrived at the university clean slates unaware of their deeper selves and the world beyond their superficial experience.”
- Alan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind

“There are seething energies of spirituality in evidence everywhere.”
- Eugene H. Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places

“All this happened, more or less.”
- Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse - Five

“I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest.”
- Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

“Stella, cold, cold, the coldness of hell.”
- Cynthia Ozick, The Shawl

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”
- Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis

“All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion.”
- Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenin

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