The Long, Poetic Opening

The rule: start with something short and punchy. So what’s any self-respecting author going to do to surprise readers? Break the rules, of course.

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 winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, 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, A Tale of Two Cities

With ill-advised attraction to the comma and dangerous indifference to the period, Dickens is one of the few who could get away with this. Yes, short is usually better than long. Thus a word of caution to some of us; Professional Writer on Closed Course. Do Not Attempt.

The poetic nature of his prose makes this work. The paired contrasts set the theme for the tale of two contrasting cities and extremist viewpoints we are about to hear.

Something else subterranean gives his opening power. Dickens is echoing one of the most famous passages in literature. 

There is a time for everything,

and a season for every activity under the heavens:

a time to be born and a time to die,

a time to plant and a time to uproot,

a time to kill and a time to heal,

a time to tear down and a time to build,

a time to weep and a time to laugh,

a time to mourn and a time to dance,

a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,

a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,

a time to search and a time to give up,

a time to keep and a time to throw away,

a time to tear and a time to mend,

a time to be silent and a time to speak,

a time to love and a time to hate,

a time for war and a time for peace. (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)

By recalling this passage for readers, even without their full awareness, he evokes the profound emotions of uncertainty we have about life – about its meaning, about why there is happiness and headache, about the temptations of cynicism and the call of hope.

We may struggle to successfully generate an echo like this, but it can be worth the effort. The advantage of evoking a famous line is that doing so draws upon all the resources of emotion and meaning that have accumulated with that passage over the years. It gives weight, depth, and substance to an opening. By building on a substantial existing foundation, our structure can go higher. We don’t want to merely quote it but to give it our own twist or turn, fitting it to our task, as Dickens does.

John’s Gospel does likewise. It opens with, “In the beginning was the Word,” gaining immense traction by recalling the opening of Genesis, “In the beginning God.” Here, John says, in Jesus is something as profound as the creation of the cosmos. And should we also think, perhaps, the Creator himself?

from “Write Better: A Lifelong Editor on Craft, Art, and Spirituality” by Andrew T. Le Peau, Intervarsity Press