Monday, July 22, 2013

Writing Modes, & Importance of The First Sentence

    Maggie Smith , the acclaimed star of Downton Abbey on PBS,  won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1970 for her role in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,  the same year I started my career in journalism  at the Pico Rivera News in southern California. The  editor,  Bill Schlapper was like a college professor giving instruction and guidance to his fledgling reporters.   When writing a  story, Bill said  I should  choose  the topic,  and carry its theme throughout  - not to become distracted with emotion and extemporaneous happenings outside of what I was writing about.

    Bill was an early mentor  whose counsel served me well in the feature articles I wrote for the Pico Rivera News, and later when I took at job  at the Herald-American/Call Enterprise. Along with the basic writing rule  of journalism - what, who, when, where and why, Bill often alluded to  the four  writing modes and their different roles,  how each had a specific purpose.  Expository, Descriptive, Narrative, and Persuasive. The one time editor of the Pico Rivera  News would be pleased to know textbooks today still list  those modes.

   Expository writing communicates knowledge. It provides and explains information; it may also give general directions or step by step instructions on any activity.

   Descriptive writing can make a person, place or thing come to life.

   Narrative writing tells a story, either real or fictional, and holds the reader's attention by presenting interesting characters in a carefully ordered series of events.

   Persuasive writing presents an opinion. Its goal is to make readers feel or think a certain way.

   With each type, there are several  questions particular  to the  modes  of writing a   writer  should  ask   of him or her self.   One in common for all,  "Is the opening paragraph interesting, does the first sentence get the reader's attention?"  For me, that opening sentence is always the most difficult to write.  Where to start ? How to begin? I think back to those many years ago,  long before personal computers and word processing  when I  sat behind a Royal  typewriter to do a story for the newspaper. Always  close to deadline,  it would take me  the longest timeto compose that first sentence. I would eventually get up from my chair, pace the floor back and forth until something came to mind. A habit I continue to this day when working on an article for magazine  or blog post.


     According to one  internet writing site, to write brilliant first sentences,  writers should   pick up favorite books and read the first sentence carefully and think about what makes them so effective. It is often judged  the best opening sentence is short and snappy, and sets the tone of the story.

     For example, read the first sentence of  The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark's novel published in 1961, later adapted to stage play , then movie :

      The boys, as they talked to the girls from Marcia Blaine school, stood on the far side of their bicycles holding the handlebars, which established a protective fence of bicycle between the sexes, and the impression that at any moment the boys were likely to be away.

      It's not   boys talking to girls that draws the reader in ,  but a protective fence of bicycle between the sexes, that describes the scene, and makes us wonder about these particular boys and girls, and what happens next?     It shows how a  well written first  sentence  helps  motivate  the reader to read on.








Jennifer Rova said...

It seems that much more emphasis is placed on the appeal of first sentences today than every before. In this time of immediate satisfaction due to the pace of the internet, internet games, music and TV, writers have to learn this art of "hooking" in at least the first few sentences if not the very first. No more Michner's success at taking three chapters to tell you the sun is rising over Maui. Great post!

Anonymous said...

What an awesome post! Your articles are always so interesting and make me think. What a great talent you have, thank you for sharing. Look forward to the next.


Patty said...

Can't count the books I've put down because the first few sentences didn't capture my attention. Interesting blog, Kath!