Writing Workshop: Close Reading the First Line of Bill Broun’s Night of the Animals
As a writer, it’s crucial to close read the sentences and paragraphs that make you go, “…whoa.” Close reading is the process of analyzing and critically thinking about the composite elements of a sentence to better understand the author’s intention.
In doing so, you learn more about the mechanics, the syntax, the impact of the diction, what you do and don’t like on a micro-level, which you can then apply to your own writing.
When it comes to passages that make you go “…whoa,” every writer knows the importance of a great opening sentence. (Name one workshop on finding your dream agent that doesn’t talk about “perfecting your hook.” I dare you.) Put simply, a great opening sentence gives you the platform and the opportunity to grab a reader’s attention and never let go.
Here’s a phenomenal example that made me go, “…whoa” recently:
“On the last day of April of 2052, as a newly discovered comet, Urga-Rampos, neared Earth, a very ill, very old, and very corpulent man started to shoulder his way into the thick hedges around the last public zoo on earth.” (p. 3, Night of the Animals, Bill Broun, Ecco Books, 2016)
Standing at forty-one words and three clauses, this sentence does much to set the scene for Bill Broun’s novel, Night of the Animals, as a whole. Let’s see what we can make of it through close reading.
Lasts and firsts.
Within the very first clause, the scene is set: springtime in the near future. By the end of the sentence, we learn that the world has changed irrevocably in those thirty-odd years: the phrase “last public zoo” supposes not only that we are in an environmental crisis that threatens our animals, but the word “public” also suggests that current class tensions have become even more extreme, so that zoos and other such things are not meant for just anyone anymore.
Moreover, we have a new life – the life of a newly discovered comet nearing Earth – contrasted with an old life – that of our “very old” protagonist. When one considers that, astronomically speaking, a comet is at the end of its life as it nears its collision point, we can see a parallel between the only two subjects in this sentence.
This shows that the book will be a literary Venn Diagram, a study in contrasts and similarities, and that this is part of Broun’s thesis to look out for and unpack as we read.
This opening sentence bakes urgency into the mission of the novel. The comet serves as Chekhov’s gun. Even if our protagonist, the old gentleman, is unaware of it, there is a ticking time bomb in the sky, nearing Earth and causing likely ramifications for everyone on our planet.
The importance of verb choice.
We can tell this isn’t an action adventure novel, though, even if it has comets and post-apocalyptic murmurings. For one thing, action adventure novels typically trade in shorter, more compact sentences. Moreover, the verb choices within this opening sentence set a slower pace than a commercial thriller would have.
The comet is “nearing” us, not hurtling towards us. The old man is “start[ing] to shoulder” rather than just going on and “shoulder[ing]” his way through the hedges.
Things are happening, but all in their own due time. They are floodwaters seeping in through a crack, not bursting forth in a tidal wave.
Introduction of the protagonist.
Because he’s sneaking into what is supposed to be an accessible ("public") park, we know that our protagonist is a rule breaker, which, coupled with the fact that he’s an unlikely hero, makes this fun. It makes me want to learn more about him in the coming pages.
Moreover, the description of the protagonist as “very ill and very old” heightens the suspense for us. We wonder, Will he survive the novel?
Diction demonstrates an intelligent narrator.
By describing Cuthbert as “corpulent” instead of fat, and calling the comet by its name, we must imagine that this narrator, though possibly a blowhard, is intelligent and informed to a trustworthy degree.
Earth vs. earth.
This very first sentence uses the word “earth” twice, in both its upper and lower case iterations. This could indicate two meanings: the planet and its peoples; scientific versus figurative phrasing. Perhaps the book will be bound up in both? Perhaps, considering the diction of the narrator and how close the third person ends up being to Cuthbert, we have a very intelligent but very superstitious protagonist on our hands?
We must read further to find out.
Of course, most readers won’t break down the magic of individual words or revel in an impressive sentence. They may not even stop to say, “…whoa.” But this is the magic of creative composition: the words cast a spell even when their mechanics are not acknowledged, for those that do and don’t have the vocabulary and training to unpack them.
This is the work of the writer on the sentence level. Novelist, creative non-fiction author, technical blogger, or business writer, we should pull our readers in, make them wonder what will happen in the next sentence and the next… until they somehow find themselves at the end.
Keep this in mind the next time you sit down to write.