The Pretentious Article

There are three different kinds of article in English: The indefinite article, so named because the noun it modifies is indefinite (an apple, a fish); the definite article, modifying a definite noun (the apple – you know, that one on the table, the fish – that one over there in the aquarium); and the pretentious definite article.

The definite article is used to clarify that you are referring to a particular item, one that is known by the conversant. But the pretentious definite article is the besetting sin of the modern novelist. It is a tawdry attempt by the writer to pretend that he has followed Tolstoy’s counsel and begun in the middle of the action. I believe I find the Pretentious article more annoying even than bad grammar or sloppy syntax. Nothing is more unforgivable in writing than pretence.

If you are unclear what I am talking about, go to the library (surely you will have no such books in your own house) and pull any book written in the last twenty or thirty years. In this age of unfeigned pretence, odds approximate one in two that the first book you open will begin with the prententious article.  Surely you see what I mean.

The lazy dog nozed open the door…
The man checked the casing of his firearm…
The soldier wandered to the river side…

The blah blah blah blah did blah blah blah blah.

You and I, dear reader, have this little secret. At least we do now that I have told you. There is a man, nudge, nudge. He’s “the man.” After all, if I had taken the trouble to identify him or to provide you with context or exposition you probably wouldn’t have continued.

This is simply shoddy writing using the presumed laziness, illiterateness, and emotional instability of the reader as an excuse.

I challenge you to find one good book that begins with a decontextualized definite noun in its opening sentence. It’s not the presence of the definite article that offends; it’s the pointlessness of it, the pretentiousness.

And the worst of it is that when you go to writer’s workshops, the novice writers who only read contemporary fiction to determine what writers should do encourage it. Teachers encourage it in the schools. It’s awful. Kill it, along with every other form of pretence. Why do people think this is good?

I just flipped through a collection of essays on writing by renouned story tellers like Madelaine L’Engle and Ursula K. LeGuin. Not one of them opened with a pretentious article. Not one. Who has spread the idea that it is good to do so? Who!!

I think it arises from a number of unthought conditions, such as the appetite for immediate action even if the action is disembodied (an impossibility, of course, but why would writers care about that), not having anything to say (usually a hint would go in the first sentence), lack of opening skills and/or tools, etc. Mostly, I think this deplorable tendency arises from fear of the reader; the fear that if you don’t push the reader on the roller coaster that is your book, she might never board and then all is lost.

But readers like to meet people and chat with them in the line. Human beings are what make stories appealing, even if they are hidden in the forms of animals. Actual, contextualized, flesh and blood, named human beings. Give them to your reader and your reader will follow you past the first sentence.

In short, the most important purpose of 9 out of 10 opening sentences is to put a character in front of the reader who exists, and existence always requires context. Some examples from the book I refered to above (Origins of Story):

“When I was a child, I was always puzzled by the heoric status accorded to Jack, who climbed the beanstalk.”

“One of my favorite beginnings is from Coleridge’s unfinished poem, “Kubla Khan”:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A Stately pleasure dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
     Down to the sunless sea…”

“Play is one of two universal childhood creative acts, the other being dreaming.”

“The first idea I had for The Hounds of the Morrigan came in a dream…”

I’m not a big fan of the much abused “One of my” or “One of the” openings, but it has its place. But apart from that, these are living openings. Look at the verbs and look at the actors. No pretence. Just vivid presentation, even of abstractions.

Here’s a suggested “opening exercise”:

Write a simple sentence with a simple subject and predicate: The dog ate the wishbone. (you could use the Mad-lib approach here and just fill in the blanks with nouns and verbs).

Fix that sentence with these two steps:

One, identify the dog.
Two, add the word “when” or “after” and begin the sentence with an adverbial phrase:

When Tom went swimming, his dog Rover ate the wishbone.
After Tom ate his Thanksgiving leftovers, the neighbor’s collie Fido ate the wishbone.
After my dog Dobbie ate the wishbone, everything I ever desired came to pass. 

All I’ve done is add a little bit of flesh and blood to an otherwise wholly unsatisfactory sentence. Even more could be added by identifying the wishbone, but opening sentences shouldn’t carry too much weight. Also, “the wishbone” does not offer us a pretentious article because there is no need to be any clearer about wishbone we are talking about.

No more pretentious articles! Please!


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